Explain the theories of Peter Brown about saints and ascetics as revered patrons for their followers and apply them to the life of Mary of Egypt as a powerful symbol of Christian asceticism.
Gerard Vallee (1999) points out that Peter Brown developed a theory that saints and ascetics in the East, particularly Syria, functioned as patrons (rural patrons) for their followers in a society that was undergoing a crisis of leadership. The author reports that Peter Brown qualified his theory of saints and ascetics as Christ-like patrons who facilitated the transition from paganism to Christianity by negotiating the honorable surrender of the gods to change their followers to Christianity. Peter Brown’s first theory about saints and ascetics is that holy men achieved high influence among their followers through exemplary asceticism due to their lack of concern for coercion or wealth (Vallee, 1999). Besides a lack of concern for wealth, the saints and ascetics emphasized the religious value of sexual renunciation and the role of self-mortification in reforming humans and directing them to mastery over their desires and passions (Vallee, 1999). In addition, ascetic traditions emphasized the importance of controlling bodily energies and dedicating one’s heart to God while maintaining friendly relations with the episcopal leadership, such as monks and bishops. By assuming new roles as revered patrons of their followers, ascetics abandoned the life of living in cages on the edges of villages and lived in the middle of organized monastic communities. Thus, the theory of ascetic life, according to Peter Brown, was premised on a lack of desire for coercion or wealth, strong dedication to seeking self-improvement in the presence of God, self-mortification and reformation, sexual renunciation and controlling bodily desires while redirecting the heart to God. Ascetic traditions were also characterized by the theory of moral progress, self-grooming, and gaining mind control over the body.
Mary of Egypt was a prostitute from Alexandria who obtained saintliness and righteousness through ascetic life, repentance, and strong dedication to God. According to Talbot (1996), Mary of Egypt left her parents when she was only 12 years and moved to Alexandria, where she worked as a prostitute for over 17 years. However, when she was 29, she joined a group of Egyptian and Libyan pilgrims who were moving to Jerusalem to witness the “Feast of Exaltation of the Holy Cross” (Talbot, 1996). She offered sexual favors to the Egyptian and Libyan pilgrims in return for the passage to Golgotha in Jerusalem, where she converted to Christianity, repented her sins, and adopted a life of devout holiness (Talbot, 1996). She bought three loaves of bread in Golgotha and crossed River Jordan, settling in the desert and living in isolation for 47 years without meeting another human being (Talbot, 1996). However, after 47 years, she met Zosimas, a dedicated from the monastery at the banks of River Jordan. Zosimas promised her the holy eucharist and brought it to her after one year (Talbot, 1996). However, when Zosimas visited her for the third time, she was already dead, and he discovered and buried her body in the desert with the help of a lion that appeared mysteriously.
Notably, the life of Mary is a powerful symbol of Christian asceticism that indicates that God’s forgiveness and salvation are open to all sinners. The primary importance of Mary’s life and salvation story lies in the theme of a repentant harlot who sought God’s presence and forgiveness by repenting her sins, transforming herself to gain moral progress, and gaining control over bodily desires. Peter Brown’s first theory about ascetics and saints that applies to Mary’s life as a saint is that ascetics and saints lack concern for wealth or coercion. According to Mary’s life story, she survived alone in the desert for 47 years without owning any property or accumulating any amount of wealth to facilitate her sustenance in the harsh desert life. Instead, she resolved to constant prayer and pursuit of forgiveness, denouncing her old sinful ways and directing her heart to God. For example, Mary survived in the desert for many years without clothes, overcoming the harsh desert conditions with her bare skin. This strong demonstration of faith and asceticism is demonstrated in Mary’s plea to Zosimas when she said, “Father Zosimas, forgive me in the name of the Lord, I cannot turn toward you and be seen by you face to face, for as you can see I am a woman and I am naked…but if you are really willing to grant one favor of a sinful woman, throw me the garment you are wearing, so that with it I can cover my feminine weakness.” This quote illustrates that Mary spent her life in the desert as a humble believer without any belongings and a strong dedication of her heart to God. In this regard, Mary’s life is a powerful symbol of Christian asceticism as it demonstrates severe discipline and abstinence from all forms of wealth or indulgence, primarily for religious reasons.
Mary’s life in the desert also demonstrates the theory of sexual renunciation and strong control over bodily desires, which is one of Peter Brown’s theories about saints and ascetics. Mary demonstrated sexual renunciation by abandoning the prostitute life in Alexandria and moving to the desert, where she adopted a solitary ascetic life, living for 47 years without encountering any human. Zosimas described her severe discipline and commitment to the ascetic life, saying, “O spiritual mother, that you have long ago departed toward God, and have in great part mortified yourself to the world” (Talbot, 1996). In this encounter, Zosimas realized Mary’s abstinence from all forms of worldly indulgence and strong control over bodily desires and passions, which is in line with the theories about saints and ascetics. In this regard, Mary’s solitary life in the desert strongly symbolizes Christian asceticism as it shows strong control over bodily passion and self-mortification. She lived a life of renunciation and practiced feats of mortification to maintain her contact with God and the supernatural world.
Finally, Mary underwent moral progress and spiritual development in the desert, gaining the gift of foresight. The theory of moral progress emphasizes improvement in moral beliefs, self-improvement, and firm control over bodily passions (Vallee, 1999). Mary’s moral progress developed from her deep grip on the existing moral concepts of Christians and the realization of her moral understanding of Christian lifestyles. For example, she progressed from a low-life prostitute in Alexandria to a highly regarded saint with the gift of foresight and mystical experiences. To illustrate, she called Zosimas by name and addressed him as a priest during their first meeting at the banks of River Jordan, even though they had never met before (Talbot, 1996). In addition, she demonstrated mystical experiences when she miraculously prayed from an elevated position, hanging in the air and maintaining the position during her prolonged prayers. When Zosimas thought that she was a demonic spirit pretending to be praying, she interpreted Zosimas’s thoughts and reassured him that she was just a sinful woman who was protected by baptism (Talbot, 1996). These illustrations demonstrate Mary’s moral progress from a drunk prostitute to a saint and the greatest of desert Mothers. In conclusion, Mary’s life is a strong symbol of Christian asceticism as it illustrates her ascent to sanctity entirely in God without receiving support at any stage of her ecclesiastical ladder.
Explain the relationships between Church and the emperor in the East and West in the fourth and fifth centuries.
Christianity was established as an official religion in the Roman Empire during the reign of Emperor Theodosius I, from the mid-4th century to the late 4th century (Vallee, 1999). During this time, the Roman Empire was already split into Western and Eastern empires. However, Christianity was practiced differently in the two parts of the empire. For instance, in the West, where pagan life and ancient cults dominated, emperors publicly supported the ancient cults and their followers. Contrarily, Christianity was strongly founded in the Eastern provinces, and the emperors strongly discouraged ancient cults. In this way, the emperors played dual roles of supporting the Church in the Eastern provinces and ancient cults in the Western parts. For example, Emperor Constantine followed the pagan practices of the West, while in the East, he embraced Christianity and openly discouraged traditional pagan practices. However, as Christianity continued to spread in the empire, the subsequent emperors, like Constantius, substituted Christianity for the ousted ancient cults. The emperors provided financial support to the Church in both Eastern and Western provinces by financing the construction of churches and establishing priestly colleges. Thus, the first relationship between emperors and the Church in East and West was a financial relationship as the emperors recognized and supported Christianity by establishing churches and priestly colleges.
Besides offering financial support to churches and encouraging conversion to Christianity, emperors in the 4th and 5th centuries issued rulings that afforded bishops greater responsibilities and privileges, thus strengthening their positions in society. In this way, Christianity transformed from a persecuted sect to a dominant faith in the Roman Empire, especially in the 4th century during the reign of Emperor Theodosius 1, who instituted Christianity as the empire’s official religion (Vallee, 1999). The relationship between the Church and the emperors was expressed in civil dignity, and the emperors valued Christianity to preserve Hellenic culture and protect the empire from annihilation. For example, Emperor Augustine supported Christianity by refuting the claims that the crumbling of the Roman Empire in 410 under the Visigoths was due to the empire’s termination of ancient cults and ancestral gods (Vallee, 1999). Emperor Augustine claimed that Christianity could protect Hellenistic traditions (such as preserving copies of ancient manuscripts and artworks) and protect the empire from annihilation by pagan groups such as the Visigoths (Vallee, 1999). In this regard, the emperors supported the Church and Christianity to gain approval and support from all social classes, which made their rule easier. For example, Emperor Constantine appointed bishops and convened a council of bishops to address critical matters affecting the empire and Christian faith, indicating that the emperors used Christianity as a political tool to advance their rule in return for support and endorsement of Christian traditions and practices within the empire. The emperors’ conversion to Christianity and the transition of Christianity as a dominant religion in the empire in the 4th century triggered a movement that unified the powers and roles of the state and those of the Church, allowing bishops to take influential positions in political and administrative roles, as the philosophers of the old (Vallee, 1999). Thus, the Church enabled emperors’ rule, and Christianity was exercised to legitimize power, indicating that the emperors had political relationships with the Church, as demonstrated by emperors Augustine and Constantine.
However, the relationship between emperors and the Church in the East differed remarkably from that in the West. Precisely, in the Western empire, emperors submitted to the judgment of bishops in spiritual matters, while in the East, the Church served the state and was answerable to the emperors even in matters of spirituality (Vallee, 1999). For example, the emperor in the East was seen as God’s viceroy, performing both civic and religious duties. To illustrate, Emperor Constantine was made a saint in the East, and he ruled there as a religious and political leader. The relationship between the two powers (Church and state) was not welcome in the East as there was one power concentrated on the emperor, who had priestly and political duties to lead and guide his subjects spiritually. Contrarily, the relationship between Church and emperors in the West was defined by the concept of two powers where they remained as two distinct powers. The bishops obeyed the emperors’ decisions in secular matters, while the emperors obeyed the bishops’ judgments in spirituality matters. In this regard, the emperor in the West could be advised, judged, and corrected by the church leaders when his behaviors contradicted or threatened the interests of the Church. For example, Bishop Ambrose, the influential bishop of Milan, claimed that the emperor was a subject of the Church, not above it. In addition, the bishops in the West were more influential and assumed a new form of authority that bishops in the East lacked. For instance, bishops in the West received magistrate powers from Constantine, allowing them to operate their own courts and administer justice to the community members (Vallee, 1999). In this light, the bishops coordinated secular and religious matters of their subjects, as opposed to the East, where the powers of religious leaders were severely limited, and the Church answered to the state. Thus, emperors and the Church had different civic and religious relationships in the East and in the West.
In conclusion, the Church and Roman emperors in the East and West had multiple relationships. In both Eastern and Western empires, the emperors provided financial assistance to the Church to support the establishment of priestly colleges and churches. Besides this financial relationship, the emperors viewed the Church as an influential tool to protect Hellenistic culture and a tool for legitimizing political power and influence by obtaining approval from all social groups. However, the relationship between the Church and the emperors significantly differed in the East and West. In the East, the Church was a subject of the state, and church leaders answered to the emperor, who was viewed as God’s viceroy in charge of civic and religious roles. Contrarily, in the West, the Church and emperors existed as two powers, with church leaders having significant control over secular and religious matters of their subjects’ lives.
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Vallée, G. (1999). The Shaping of Christianity: The History and Literature of Its Formative Centuries (100-800). Paulist Press.
Vallée, G. (1999). The Shaping of Christianity: The History and Literature of Its Formative Centuries (100-800). Paulist Press.