Friday, November 12, 2004

Heresy of the Week!

Before I start my Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Weekend dash to Omaha (more on that later), I need to annouce this week's winner in the Heresy of the Week contest! Winners receive...well, fire and brimstone. Honorable mention receives burning sulfur. (Please realize this is tongue in cheek)

This week's winner! Messalianism!
Honorable Mention: Alexander the Sleepless

Alexander the Sleepless was one of the most controversial monastic figures of the Eastern Church in the later half of the 4th Century because he was one of the last renowned monastics in the Eastern church who followed the apostolic model of monasticism in extreme austerity and evangelism. Alexander refused to remain confined to the steppes of Syria in the traditional role of “desert father,” and with his appearance in urban Constantinople, became a threat to the church powers that wanted more centralized and organized control of the church, monastics, and monasteries. Alexander was charged as a Messalian and banished, not because his doctrines were necessarily anti-scriptural but rather that he and his doctrines were politically troublesome to the church and needed disposing of by the powers that were (Caner 126-130).
Beginning in the 4th Century, a form of monasticism, later deemed a heresy, began to surface in the eastern church whose followers were called Messalians or Euchites. These names, the former from Aramaic and the latter is from Greek, both mean “People who Pray” or “Praying Folk” (Baker 135-141). Originating from non-Christian influences in Mesopotamia around AD 360, their major belief was that each person is born with an inborn demon that the use of sacraments were useless against. Only ceaseless prayer leading to a complete state of devoid of passion (Brown 120-134) could one hope to attain relief from the evil spirit and find union with God. They prayed continually, even to the extent of allegedly never sleeping. From this attribute, Alexander got his name of “the Sleepless” (Caner 128).
Messalians took this to extremes by never working, relying solely on the church to meet their every need. They supported this belief in the words of Christ that spoke of going into cities to preach and to not worry about money or work. Messalians refusal to do any form of manual labor made them a nuisance. They became unpopular to the point of being pariahs and were eventually renounced as heretics (Fischen 141-142).
Scholars are uncertain whether Alexander and his band of roughly one hundred monks when they had arrived in Constantinople were, in fact, Messalians. One scholar goes so far as to suggest that Hypatius' involvement with Alexander the Sleepless proves Alexander was more inclined to “orthodoxy” (Baguenard 51). Wolfe also argues that Pulcheria would not have tried to intervene on Alexander's behalf had Alexander been truly guilty of being a Messalian (Wolfe 306-307). However, whether Alexander would have identified himself as a Messalian or not, especially to the extent of believing every person had an inborn demon, is largely irrelevant. His outward actions could clearly be defined under “praying folk” characterizations synonymous with Messalians. His aversion to any form of manual labor in light of this “unceasing prayer” is another clue (Stewart 46).
What is significant about Alexander the Sleepless is that his life, actions, and subsequent banishment are typical of why Messalianism was a problem and eventually deemed a heresy in AD 431 by the Council of Ephesus (Fitschen 352-355). Evolving from the “Desert Father” form of monasticism, many monastics during the 4th and 5th centuries were beginning to overrun the urban areas in the East, especially Constantinople and Antioch. These “free” monastics, i.e. not under any form of church or episcopal oversight, wandered the streets doing actions ranging from preaching to chicanery to bizarre displays of archery against demons (Frank 13-14). Not being able to control them, bishops and patriarchs were, at the least, concerned about general church order and power governance.
The organized church hierarchy also had reason to dislike monastics like the Messalians for two other reasons: religious or doctrinal embarrassment and civic order. The problem of having to feed, clothe, and care for hundreds of otherwise aimless monks who refused to work was a problem just from a logistical standpoint. The quandary that faced the church hierarchy was that many could not countenance the idea that out of limited church coffers the church was having to support perfectly able-bodied men who just refused to work. On the other hand, they would open themselves up to moral criticism if they chose to ignore the Messalians on a day to day basis and allowed them to starve because the Messalians could maintain that the church was being hypocritical if they refused to support the Messalians and others because Jesus said to feed the poor.
To avoid this entire problem, the solution was easier for the church to label this umbrella of doctrine and action as Messalian heresy and simply rid the streets and banish anyone who remotely fell under this broad definition. Alexander the Sleepless is the perfect example of this sweeping “solution” to the Messalian problem. As stated previously, Alexander's contemporary biographer and other sources make little mention of why Alexander should have been banned from Constantinople on false doctrine, per se. What evidence we have seems to suggest that Alexander simply got labeled a heretic more on his actions of not working and not on any particularly dangerous doctrine. This would have seemed appropriate for the church and its purposes, which just wanted the nuisance of Messalians eliminated for more practical and personal reasons and not for reasons of doctrine antithetical to scripture or tradition.
For these unscrupulous reasons, the church was successful in banishing Messalians and anyone who vaguely resembled them. This blanket prohibition, though extreme, did achieve two goals: the wiping out of Messalians and those with like piety (Fitschen, “Did ‘Messalianism’ exist in Asia Minor after AD 431?” 352-355) and opened the door for traditionally structured forms of monasticism which flowered in the Middle Ages with monasteries, abbots, etc (Dunn 58-89). Alexander the Sleepless' actions, at the very least, makes on interesting case in favor of why Messalians were a threat to civic and church order. At the very most, Alexander represents yet another religious zealot whose doctrine, based on Christ's own call to worry not about food or tomorrow, was labeled a Messalian heretic for convenience's sake, whether justified or not, and simply banned for the good of the Church.

Works Cited
Baker, Aelred. Messalianism, the Monastic Heresy. Monastic studies, 10 p 135-141. Pine City, NY : Mount Saviour Monastery, 1974.
Brown, Peter. "Sorcery, Demons, and the Rise of Christianity, from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages." Religion and Society in the Age of St. Augustine (London: Faber and Faber 1972), 119-147.
Caner, Daniel. Wandering, Begging Monks: Spiritual Authority and the Promotion of Monasticism in Late Antiquity. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002.
Dunn, Marilyn. The Emergence of Monasticism. Oxford, Blackwell Publishers, 2000.
Frank, Georgia. 2000. The Memory of the Eyes: Pilgrims to Living Saints in Christian Late Antiquity. Transformation of the Classical Heritage 30. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 13-14, 29.
Fitschen, Klaus. 1998. Messakuabusnus und Antimessaalianismus. Forschungenzur Kirchen- und Dogmengeschichte 71. Gottinggen: vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 141-142.
_______. "Did ‘Messalianism’ exist in Asia Minor after AD 431?" Studia patristica, 25 p 352-355. Louvain : Peeters, 1993.
Gribomont, Jean. " Eastern Christianity: Monasticism and Asceticism." Christian Spirituality p 89-112. New York, NY : Crossroad, 1985.
Staats, Reinhardt. "Messalianism and antimessalianism in Gregory of Nyssa's De virginitate." Patristic-and-Byzantine-Review. 2 no 1 1983, p 27-44.
Gregory of Nyssa's De virginitate is a very early document in the history of Messalianism, justified only by the fact that in the 23d chapter Gregory warns against an ascetic fanaticism corresponding to the picture of the Messalians that Epiphanius has transmitted. But as in De instituto there is a paradox in De virginitate: Gregory's arguments are not only Antimessalian but even Messalian, for there are overlapping themes by Gregory and Macarius-Symeon. The conclusion is that De virginitate has a material and a chronological relation to De instituto and to the Great letter of Macarius-Symeon.
Stewart, Columba. 1989. "New Perspectives on the Messalian Controvery." SP 19, 243-249.
_______. 1991. "Working the Earth of the Heart: The Messalain Controversy in History, Texts, and Language to AD 431." Oxford: Clarendon Press, 46.
Voobus, Arthur. "On the historical importance of the legacy of pseudo-Macarius : new observations about its Syriac provenance."Papers of the Estonian Theological Society in Exile; 23. Stockholm : Estonian Theological Society in Exile,1972.


Anonymous said...

You have a very interesting site here, and some interesting insights. I do have a concern, however, about the idea of having a "Heresy of the Week" style column.

My main concerns are that any who may ascribe to these heresies (obviously not a problem with this one!) may be more put off from receiving and believing the True Word of God. Obviously, conversion can only happen through and by God, but people and their words can help or hinder the process.

Also, consider the fact that though it may seem all in good fun to gather around and congratulate each other for not being like and falling into the same practices as those heretics, having a good belly laugh and all, and though it may seem like an intellectual curiosity, what is it achieving?

I think that more could be gained by spotlighting how we Christians can live and move forward now and best serve Christ. For example, you might investigate the New Monasticism (which has nothing at all to do with Messalianism, in case you were wondering), or perhaps finding old heresies disguising themselves as "new discoveries" on the History Channel, and putting paid to them with good honest scripture.

I'm not against Christians having a good laugh. Heck, I'm a double PK, and I can guarantee that pastors (sorry, I'm Lutheran) have a much greater sense of humor than many of their perishoners would assume or necessarily even be quite comfortable with given today's stereotypes of what a pastor "should be".

I'm just throwing my cent's worth in. I also live in Nebraska, and will be reading more of your blog.

The Archer of the Forest said...

I haven't done this type post in about three years. It was mainly a trial thing I did some years ago when I was taking a course on the patristic fathers. If you read more of my blog, you will quickly learn most of what I do is tongue in cheek.