Emperors and Theologians

cappadocian-fathers

In reading church history, I came across the stories about the significant men of the fourth century, namely, Emperor Julian the Apostate; Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria; and the Great Cappadocian Fathers, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus.

Julian’s father was a half-brother of Constantine, and therefore Julian was a first cousin to the three emperors, the surviving sons of Constantine, namely: Constantine II, Constans and Constantius II. Sometime thereafter, Constantius became the sole emperor of the Empire. Because Consantius had no children who could aid him in government, he decided to call on his cousin Gallus and gave him the title of “caesar,” that is, of junior emperor as the emperor then was called “augustus.” As rumors spread that Gallus was conspiring against Constantius, the latter had the former arrested and beheaded just a few years after having made him caesar. Constantius then decided to set aside the bad experience with Gallus and called his one surviving relative to share his power and giving him the title of caesar and appointing him to rule in Gaul. Unexpectedly, Julian, who had spent his life among books and philosophers, became a great ruler but Constantius gave him little support. When Constantius suddenly died prior to marching against Julian, the latter had no difficulty in marching to Constantinople and claiming the rule of the whole empire.

Although baptized and raised a Christian, Julian sought both to restore the lost glory of paganism and to impede the progress of Christianity. This religious policy earned him the title by which history knows him: “the Apostate.” Rather than persecuting Christians, Julian followed a two-pronged policy of hindering their progress and ridiculing them. He even wrote a work Against the Galileans. Despite his animosity towards Christianity, Julian applied what he learned therefrom in reinvigorating paganism, including the adoption of the clergy hierarchy similar to that which was observed by the church at that time. As he was moving along in enforcing his anti-Christian policies, he died unexpectedly.

The next great figure of antiquity was Athanasius of Alexandria. Athanasius is well known because of his significant contribution during the Council of Nicea. Being so dark and short, his enemies called him “the black dwarf.” Although the time and place of his birth are not known, it is assumed that he was Coptic in ethnicity due to the language that he spoke and his complexion. Therefore, he was a member of the lower classes in Egypt. After the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325, most people thought that the Arian problem has been finally dealt with. However, not long after the death of Constantine did the Arians regain supremacy due to the influence of the new emperor, Constantius II who was himself a staunch supporter of Arianism. As a convinced Arian, Emperor Constantius felt the need to rid himself of the champion of the Nicene faith. Instead of banishing Athanasius, by the use of force, Constantius ordered a synod to condemn Athanasius. Athanasius took refuge among the monks of the desert to whom he had a close relationship. Although Athanasius never saw the final victory of the cause to which he devoted his life, his writings clearly show that he was convinced that in the end Arianism would be defeated. As he approached his old age, he saw emerge around himself a new generation of theologians devoted to the same cause. Most remarkable among these were the Great Cappadocians, to whom we now turn our attention.

They are called Cappadocians because they hail from the region of Cappadocia in the southern Asia Minor, in lands now belonging to Muslim Turkey. The first two, Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa were bothers. However, unknown to most people, their sister Macrina played a major role in the Christian life of Basil when due to his studies in Caesarea, he became vain and especially after their brother Naucratius had died unexpectedly. Macrina became Basil’s counselor since he was so badly shaken due to his close relationship with Naucratius. Macrina spent the rest of her life in monastic retreat in Annesi. Her fame was such that she was simply called “the Teacher.”

In Annesi, Basil and his friend, the other Cappadocian Father and later Patriarch of Constantinople, Gregory of Nazianzus, founded a community of men similar to the one Macrina had founded for women. They believed that the core of monastic life is service to others; hence, the necessity of community life for one who lives alone has no one to serve. Basil also wrote rules to be followed in the monastic life.

Christian Monasticism

EasternOrthodoxChristianMonks

“Monks who leave their cells, or seek the company of others, lose their peace, like fish out of water loses its life.”

-St. Anthony

During the years prior to the Edict of Milan, when persecution was still rampant throughout the Roman Empire, followers of the Way were always aware of the possibility that one day they might be taken by the Roman authorities and be made to choose between death and apostasy. However, when the peace of the church seemed assured there are those who, unlike Eusebius of Caesarea, did not take Emperor Constantine’s peace positively with open arms. To them, imperial tolerance and even promotion of Christianity resulted in the widening of the narrow gate to salvation which Jesus had spoken about enabling multitudes to go right through it. Thus, people were lining up and demanding to be baptized without even fully understanding the Christian Faith. Furthermore, this situation likewise elevated the office of the bishop to one of prestige and power so much so that ministers competed against each other for the episcopate.

To this apparent dilemma, many found the answer in the monastic life. This is characterized by fleeing from human society and leaving everything behind in order to dominate the body and its passions which give way to temptation. Albeit monasticism had already been in existence before Constantine’s time, its practice only became widespread during the time of Constantine. It was the Egyptian desert that provided the most fertile soil for the growth of monasticism due to its inaccessibility. The word “monk” is derived from the Greek monachos, which means “solitary.”

Although it is impossible for us today to determine who really was the first monk or nun of the desert, the two that are usually given that honor are Paul and Anthony, about whom Jerome and Athanasius wrote respectively. Studying the lives of Paul and Anthony will enable us to learn about the earliest forms of monasticism, which is that of the “anchorite” or the solitary monk. As more and more people withdraw into the desert searching for and experienced teacher, a new form of monasticism arose and solitary monasticism gave way to a communal form of the monastic life. This form of monasticism is called “cenobitic,” a name derived from two Greek words which mean “communal life.” Despite not being its founder, Pachomius deserves credit as the organizer who most contributed to its final shape. Pachomius demanded that any who wished to join his community must give up all their goods and promise absolute obedience to their superiors. The basic rule was mutual service, so that even those in authority had to serve under them in spite of the vow of absolute obedience. The daily life of a Pachomian monk included both work and devotion, and Pachomius himself set an example by undertaking the most humble tasks. They prayed “without ceasing” as per the Apostle Paul’s instructions even while performing their respective trades. This most probably is the precursor to the Benedictine motto of “Ora et labora” or “Pray and work.”

We can now see from the discussion above how these monastic communities that are still present today came about. Knowing their history enables us to appreciate their various contributions to the Christian life. To know more, read The Story of Christianity by Justo Gonzalez.