The Effect of the Edict of Milan on Christian Suffering and the Rise Of Asceticism
Presentation at the 6th Symposium of Romanian Orthodox Spirituality, Trinity College at the University of Toronto, ON, April 13, 2013
The World of Martyrdom
It is a known fact that Christians in the first three centuries endured persecutions from various Roman authorities. From 64 AD during the reign of Nero until 313 AD with Constantine’s Edict of Milan, there were 10 periods of Christian persecution, each divided by brief periods of calm. The last persecution period under Diocletian and Galerius (303-324) was the most severe. During these periods of persecution we hear of stories where Christians were burned as torches, fed to lions, blinded, beaten with irons, placed on the wheel, and crucified.
Why did the Romans persecute Christians? Very briefly, Christianity did not fit in with the Roman view of religion. Religion for the Romans was strongly centered on acts of piety that promoted unity for the Empire and showed loyalty to the state.1 Furthermore, as Emperor worship was a necessary act to show state loyalty, it was obvious to any good Roman that the Christians’ refusals could only be due to their being enemies of the State.
In 303 AD persecutions reached a climax and two things happened. First, one small group of Christians welcomed the persecutions. Those Christians who believed that the true calling of a Christian was to suffer in martyrdom for Christ in order to obtain the Crowns of Glory, looked forward to persecution to fulfill their desired destiny. The second, larger group of Christians did not share in this death wish and fled to the desert to escape the persecution.
But why would anyone wish to be a Christian in the first place, if they knew that they would undergo great suffering, tortures and even the worse types of death for it. It makes no sense to our modern way of thinking. However, by reading some of the early Christian writings we may be able to gain some insight as to why these people were so willing to give up their lives.
When we look at the life of St. Justin the Martyr, we read that the danger of martyrdom did not hinder his decision to embrace the teachings of Christ. Rather, quite the opposite occurred. The “heroic contempt which Christians entertained for death,”2 as Quasten put it, actually encouraged his conversion. St. Justin writes: “I myself used to rejoice in the teaching of Plato and to hear evil spoken of Christians. But, as I saw that they showed no fear in the face of death and of all other things which inspire horror, I reflected that they could not be vicious and pleasure-loving.”3 St. Justin also writes: “Though beheaded, and crucified, and thrown to wild beasts, and chains, and fire, and all other kinds of torture, we do not give up our confession; but, the more such things happen, the more do others in larger numbers become faithful.”4
The early Christians preferred to die rather than deny Christ, and the depth of their conviction witnessed to others. Their suffering and sacrifice acted as a testimonial for the Christian message, and had the opposite effect on Christianity’s numbers than the Roman persecutors had intended.5
This is what Tertullian meant when he said that “the blood of martyrdom is the seed of the Church.”6 It was the martyrs who showed the Roman world that Christianity offered something worth dying for, and that something … is Christ. St. Paul wrote to the Philippians about his relationship with Christ, saying,
What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. 7
The martyrs did not go to martyrdom wanting to die, but on the contrary what they wanted was to be truly alive. They put all their hope in the promise of Christ, in the promise of life everlasting, and others, like St. Justin the Martyr, seeing their fearlessness before death, desired to also have what they had. And so the Church grew. Early Christians looked at their martyrdom as a type of labor that, once they got through it, they had in their possession a gift so valuable that they would endure their martyrdom again in order to possess it. The gift? …eternal life with the creator of the Universe, and fellowship with the greatest love of all, our God. This is why the Church celebrates the dates of a saint’s falling asleep, because it is not their death that is celebrated, but their second birth into eternal life.
But as St. Paul teaches us in 1 Corinthians 12:7-10, suffering also keeps us from becoming conceited and proud. This is why God gave St. Paul a thorn in the flesh to deal with. This is how God’s power is made perfect in weakness. For Satan and evil is overcome in true humility. And so St. Paul writes: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Christians looked upon the Martyrs as heroes of the faith and glorified them, because the martyrs made it to the kingdom, they gave “witness” to Christ, and showed not only the extent of their love for Christ, and total faith in what Christ promised, but in doing all this they overcame their own desires and pride and became totally weak, vulnerable, and humble. For it is humility, as St. Paul says, that gives us the Power of Christ, and the ticket to eternal life.
Thus, the martyrs gave the early Christians their role models to emulate. But what would happen when these persecutions would end and there would no longer be martyrs to set the bar for Christian love, faith, and humility?
Constantine’s Edict of Milan
In 313 AD Emperors Constantine (West) and Licinius (East) [brothers-in-law] proclaimed the Edict of Milan, which established a policy for religious freedom not only for Christians, but also for all religious groups, and also ordered the restitution of both personal and church property that had been confiscated from Christians.
The Edict of Milan brought a sigh of relief to the majority of Christians, and once Christianity became the formal religion of the state, the number of those seeking baptism rose dramatically. Unfortunately, the standards also dropped as dramatically. The church and state began to “compromise” and it soon became unclear which things belonged to God, and which to Caesar. (cf. Luke 20:25). There was a rise in the numbers in Christianity but a decline in the quality of Christianity.
St. Antony the Great and those around him were truly “nostalgic” for the spirit of martyrdom, and had actually looked forward to martyrdom. However, the Edict ended their chance to bear witness for Christ in this manner. As a result, these Christians now turned toward increased ascetic labors and imposed upon themselves acts that would allow them to suffer for Christ slowly until their death. They created a new type of self-inflicted persecution, and in so doing created a way of life that would test the sincerity of their love and faith in Christ, and stifle their pride, to enable them to be truly humble.
John Chryssavgis in his text, In the Heart of the Desert, writes: “The voice of the desert’s heart replaced the voice of the martyr’s blood. And the Desert Fathers and Mothers became witnesses of another way, another age, another kingdom.”8
The role of the desert hermits was to provide a reminder to the “average” church members of what was written in Hebrews 13:14, “Here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” Yet in addition to reminding the Church of its true calling, and providing an example of how to journey to the Kingdom, these individuals in fact unintentionally founded a new type of Christian society. They were radicals, or revolutionaries who promoted a lifestyle that radically went against “ordinary social values and expectations.” 9
Andrei Pleşu in his recently published book On Angels: Exposition for a Post-Modern World, has this to say about monasticism: “Monastic life wishes to draw attention precisely to the general amnesia regarding values and ideals, to what is essentially unobvious, to authentic life. The monk is a champion of the non-apparent, of the non-regimented, of resistance to massification.”10 Pleşu even ventures to say that “monasticism delivered the first ‘hippy’ generation in the cultural history of the world.”11 For the anchorite is at war with standard inactivity, with the ceremonial establishments of the inner life, with the feverish sleepiness of irreverent life. Simply put, the Desert Fathers and Mothers did not share the acceptable types of social values. They believed that inaction was the most powerful tool to bring about action, and this is why the lives of the radical desert elders brought them fame.
When St. Athanasius wrote The Life of Antony he himself was doing a radical act. Biographies in the fourth century were reserved for very important persons, those of noble birth, or those financially wealthy. People wrote about those who had secular authority, yet here was Athanasius, writing about Antony, the son of peasant farmers, a poor old man living alone in the desert.12 And in so doing, he provided the world with a great message: the spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers was not only revolutionary but also relevant for our lives which are not in the desert.13
Like the martyrs whose deaths pushed the comfort zone during times of violence, setting an example to those Christians threatened with persecution, the monastics too provide for Christians in times of peace examples of true living intended to push their comfort zone.
It was a protest against the complacency of the Christian world. Athanasius was informing his readers that the desert tested the readiness of these elders to live, even to die for God. The desert was what ultimately kept alive the fiery spirit of the martyrs. The words, then, of these desert elders are more than mere sayings; they are a profound statement.14
The Desert as the Testing Ground
Why is it that those who abandoned any life of the “world” chose to live in its desert? The word “desert” (eremos in Greek) literally means “abandonment.” The term “hermit” shares the same root. The Desert has traditionally been viewed as the “Testing Ground” because that is where the demons are said to live. Leviticus 16:21 portrays the desert as a land that is accursed, the place to where sins are carried off. The desert has no water, and thus was viewed by the Jews as having no life. It was seen as a dead land that brought sorrow, suffering, and death. Chryssavgis writes: “In the desert, you can only face up to yourself and to every aspect of your self, to your temptations, and to your reality. You confront your own heart, and your heart’s deepest desires, without any scapegoat, without any hiding place.” 15
Jacob battled in the desert, and it is there that all who enter do battle with their inner and outer selves. In the desert one encounters demons, and one’s own fallen nature, but also—one encounters God. In the desert, Moses spoke with God. In the desert God fed the Israelites Manna as they wandered for 40 years. In the desert, the voice crying in the wilderness, John the Baptist, called all to repentance through baptism to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. It was in the desert that Jesus began his ministry, being first tempted by the devil (Matt 4:1-10). In the desert one encounters the two extremes of Good and Evil. Here the flesh and spirit are engaged in spiritual exercise, and battle to overcome the evils within, so that the prize of heaven can be won. The desert was the gymnasium where the soul exercised to obtain transfiguration, or more accurately put transformation. Yet this testing ground was neither a “better” way, nor an “easier” way.
Abba Antony…said: “Always have the fear of God before your eyes. Remember Him who gives death and life. … Renounce this life, so that you may be alive to God. Remember what you have promised God, for it will be required of you on the Day of Judgment. Suffer hunger; suffer thirst; suffer nakedness; be watchful and sorrowful; weep and groan in your heart; test yourselves, to see if you are worthy of God; despise the flesh so that you may preserve your souls.”16
For the elders it was all or nothing. The rewards were great and the punishments severe.
The desert was not sought for personal retreat. It was a place for spiritual battle. It was not a place for peace, but for revolution. It was not a place for escape, but of deep encounter. Life in the desert was not sought to avoid life with people. To live in the desert was to live for God. The desert elders did not shun people, or despise them. They were more than hospitable, always willing to share what little they had, and give edification to those in the world who sought their advice.
But the desert is much more than a physical place, and it should not be credited for the spirituality of the Desert Monastics any more than the Romans should be credited for the spirituality of the martyrs. The Desert Fathers and Mothers through their sayings and stories reveal the desert as a way to salvation that is relevant not just for those living in the desert in the 4th Century but for everyone everywhere, and for all time. Their sayings even hold truths for us today in our technological world with our mega-cities.
So we here today do not need to go to the desert to find God, but we do have to go through the desert to find God. The desert cannot be avoided if we truly seek to travel the spiritual journey, and it must be encountered if the soul is to grow upwards. Avoidance of the desert leads to spiritual destruction. The beauty of the spiritual journey is that we don’t have to go and seek the desert in our lives. It will find us when our soul is ready to engage in battle, even though the rest of us will never be ready. Everyone goes through a desert in one shape or form, whether it is an illness, dealing with troubled teens, a breakup or divorce, a breakdown, the death of someone close, loss of one’s job, or any other kind of traumatic experience that might happen in life. Trying to avoid the desert or mask it with the use of obsessions, or successes, or addictions only delays growth, and prolongs the desert experience.
Spiritual Warfare with the Devil
Abba Antony said to Abba Poemen: “This is the great work of a person: always to take the blame for one’s own sins before God and to expect temptation to one’s last breath.” Being responsible for your life, and taking ownership for your actions is the beginning of a true and meaningful life. This means taking the blame for your mistakes and ownership of your sins. It means to be in complete control of your life. Thus, it is also a refusal to be victimized, because taking the blame for your sins does not mean avoiding confrontation with others.
In the Orthodox East, the Sacrament of Confession is paramount in its role of assisting the Christian to come face to face with his or her faults and sins. As it is very easy in many situations to put the blame on others for our mistakes, the Father Confessor’s role, among others, is to help us see where our choices in various situations affected the outcomes towards the negative.
One story from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers talks about the deathbed of Abba Sisoes. All the monks were said to have gathered around him, and noticed how his face shone. It became apparent that he was speaking to others, and they asked him,
“Who are you speaking to, father?” He replied, “Look there—the angels have come to take me, and I was asking them if they might leave me to repent a little more.” So the elders said to him, “you do not need to repent, father.” But the elder replied, “I assure you, I have not even begun to repent.” And they all knew then that he was made perfect. And suddenly his face shone like the sun once more and they were all filled with great dread. Then he said to them, “Look, the Lord has come and he is saying, ‘Bring me the vessel of the desert.’” And straightway he gave up the ghost …and the whole cell filled with a sweet fragrance. 17
All human beings, according to the Desert Elders, are interconnected. We are all involved in one another’s spiritual life, whether it is in each other’s growth or destruction. This is because if not our actions, then definitely our attitudes contribute to conditions that allow certain goods or evils to occur. When we blame others for our mistakes, and do not take ownership for our sins, we become victims of the vicious cycle of sin. We repeat our mistakes because we don’t think they are mistakes. In order to escape from this cycle we need to confront ourselves, and to actively bring about inner change by facing our temptations head on.
Most of us today do not welcome temptations. We pray for God not to lead us into “temptations”. But it must be clarified that God does not lead us into temptations. We read in James 1:13, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone (NIV).” God tests us, as He did Adam and Eve. But it is the devil who tempts us. It is the devil who presents temptations before us in order to weaken our soul’s resolve. None of us can ever go through life without encountering temptations. The desert elders were correct in that. However, unlike us, who seek to avoid them, the desert elders are grateful for them when they do come their way.
Abba Evagrius said: “Take away temptations and no one will be saved.”18
Abba Antony said: “Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven.”19
The desert fathers and mothers do not allow themselves to be overwhelmed by temptations. They view them as a way, if not the only way, of encountering God. It is through encountering temptations that we first see our sins, understand them and finally embrace them as our own. Chryssavgis writes: “the Desert Fathers and Mothers confess—and then, ultimately, profess—a spirituality of imperfection.”20 There is no way around temptations, which also bring sufferings with them. Neither can be avoided. The only way is to struggle through them. To toil and struggle is a virtue of the desert and the beginning of all virtues.
The Sayings of the Desert Fathers
The collection of Sayings of the Desert Fathers comes primarily from the representatives of semi-cenobitic monasticism. The desert was the classroom where connections were made between things divine and things human. It was here that men and women wanting to “truly live” struggled, sinned, repented and reached out to the life beyond the grave while not yet in the grave. Some learned many of life’s lessons. Some learned more and others less. Yet, what they learned they shared in collections of aphorisms or “sayings,” Apo-phtheg-mata (αποφθ?γματα) as they are called in Greek.
Lucien Regnault, in his text entitled The Day-to-Day Life of the Desert Fathers in Fourth-Century Egypt, gives an excellent description of the hidden activity of the Anchorites’ inner life. He writes:
If the Fathers were able to colonize the desert … it is that …, they had a depth and intensity of spiritual life we find hard to imagine. What we can grasp and say about it has little to do with the reality, since the Egyptian anchorites were always very concerned about not allowing anything to be seen which could draw the slightest praise and fame. … The Fathers [and Mothers] hid from others as much as they could of their corporal and visible observances. … Happily they weren’t entirely successful, …and thanks to the apothegms handed down to us, we can know something about it. … Certainly they were not the ones who developed theological science—this was not their vocation—but they nevertheless played a key role in the history of Christian spirituality and of spirituality in general. 21
The Desert Fathers and Mothers knew the value of storytelling as being both educational and edifying. There is something about listening to another’s struggles, falls and successes, and meditating on them, that helps us live humanely. This is the reason why the “Chicken Soup” book series is so popular. Chryssavgis says the following about the sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers:
The stories from the Egyptian desert are more than just a part of the Christian past. They are a part of our human heritage: they communicate eternal values, spiritual truths. Theirs is a silence of the deep heart and of intense prayer, a silence that cuts through centuries and cultures. We should stop to hear that heartbeat.22
The Fathers and Mothers of the desert present us with unconventional directions to lead us to God. Their methods are often seen as bizarre or extreme, and definitely radical, going against any “normal” understanding that we may have about how one should seek and find God. Only those human beings who have been broken in our “normal” society – whether emotionally, physically, or socially – have experienced some form of the desert and are able to connect with the words spoken from the voices which emerge from its depths. And all of us have at some point in our lives found ourselves roaming in the dryness and heat of the desert; longing for refreshment, hope and life. The desert elders did not want people to approach them and seek for council with false masks and plastic smiles. They wanted people to come to them as they truly were, and open up in all honesty, just as they lived. They desired us first and foremost to be authentic, real, and accepting of our own personal struggles and sufferings. For it is by first accepting our own wounds that healing can then occur. It was the healing of the soul that drove them to lead the lives they led, and to obtain the wisdom that they shared.
This year we celebrate the 1700-year anniversary of the proclamation of the Edict of Milan, but it can also been seen as the 1700-year anniversary of Monasticism; and thus, the 1700-year anniversary of a counter-cultural movement that, though hidden, reaches out to the world and shows those of us in it a way to get through the difficulties of life, to break through the selfishness of the world, and arrive before God as the broken and contrite spirits23 that he will not despise.
Prof. Dr. Maria-Fotini Polidoulis Kapsalis
Trinity College, Toronto
1 Robert L. Wilkin, “The Piety of the Persecutors.” Christian History, Issue 27 (Vol. XI, No. 3), p. 18.
2 Quasten, p. 197.
3 Justin Martyr, Apol. 2, 12.
4 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, 110.
5 Persecution in the Early Church in http://www.religionfacts.com/christianity/history/persecution.htm
6 Tertullian, Apologeticum (The Apology) ch. 50, 13, translated by the Rev. S. Thelwall, Late Scholar of Christ's College, Cantab.
7 Philippians 3:7-11 (NIV).
8 John Chryssavgis, In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (Indiana: World Wisdom, 2003), p. 17.
10 Andrei Plesu, On Angels: Exposition for a Post-Modern World (North Charleston: Berlin University Press, 2012), p. 112.
12 Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1984), p. 1.
13 Chryssavis, p. 17.
14 Ibid., p. 18.
15 Ibid., p. 33.
16 Antony 33.
17 In Arch. Nektarios Antonopoulos, The Return: Repentance and Confession (Athens: Akritas Publications, 2007), pp. 74-75.
18 Evagrius 5.
19 Antony 4.
20 Chryssavgis, p. 38.
21 Lucien Regnault, The Day-to-Day Life of the Desert Fathers in Fourth-Century Egypt, (Petersham, Mass.: St. Bebe’s Publications, 1999), pp. 112-113.
22 Ibid., p. 2.
23 Psalm 50 (51):17
- Antony 4
- Evgarius 5
- Philippians (NIV).
- Psalm 50 (51) (NIV)
- Justin Martyr, Apol. 2, 12.
- Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho the Jew.
- Tertullian, Apologeticum (The Apology) ch. 50, 13, translated by the Rev. S. Thelwall, Late Scholar of Christ's College, Cantab.
- Persecution in the Early Church in http://www.religionfacts.com/christianity/history/persecution.htm
- Wilkin, Robert L. "The Piety of the Persecutors." Christian History, Issue 27 (Vol. XI, No. 3) in http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/1990/issue27/2716.html
- Antonopoulos, Arch. Nektarios. The Return: Repentance and Confession. Athens: Akritas Publications, 2007.
- Chryssavgis, John. In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Indiana: World Wisdom, 2003.
- Plesu, Andrei. On Angels: Exposition for a Post-Modern World. North Charleston: Berlin University Press, 2012.
- Quasten, Johannes. Patrology. Vol. 1. Westimister: Christian Classics Inc. 1986.
- Regnault, Lucien. The Day-to-Day Life of the Desert Fathers in Fourth-Century Egypt. Petersham, Mass: St. Bebe’s Publications, 1999.
- Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1984.