"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, July 14, 2014

Brenda Llewellyn Ihssen on John Moschos and his Meadow

Brenda Llewellyn Ihssen has been doing some very interesting research and writing in the past few years. When I last interviewed her at the very beginning of 2013, it was about her then-new publication, They Who Give from Evil: The Response of the Eastern Church to Moneylending in the Early Christian Era. It is a fascinating and welcome contribution to the field of patristic moral and socio-political theology. Now this year she has come out with a study of an early and important monastic figure: John Moschos' Spiritual Meadow: Authority and Autonomy at the End of the Antique World (Ashgate, 2014), 181pp. I recently had a chance to interview her about this latest publication. Here are her thoughts:

AD: Tell us how you’ve moved from a recent book on money-lending to a book on John Moschos.

BLI: It is hard to believe that they are related, but there is a link! I had always wanted to write on Moschos’ Meadow, and in the Preface of the book I write of how I first encountered the text as a graduate student. For whatever reason, it just kept getting sidetracked as a scholarship project. But one of the tales in the collection always stuck with me, and that is the account of a woman who, when her pagan husband suggests that they loan their money and live off the interest, convinces him to loan fifty coins to the “God of the Christians” because that God will return the money and double it. To make a short story even shorter, the couple ends up profiting at an interest rate of five hundred percent, and this, Moschos writes, persuades the man to immediately become a Christian. It is easy to dismiss this as a fable, but there is so much to learn from this beneficial tale about Byzantine social history: Christians are engaged in lending with interest, a practice forbidden by the Councils; women are financial managers in some households; there is a prevailing belief that those who invest in God will be rewarded, with interest; and, finally, sometimes people are converted when they profit, and this highlights for us the occasional financial advantages of a particular religion and the way in which economic advantage can encourage conversion. So as I was finishing my monograph on moneylending, I decided that it might be a good time to start exploring accounts of “miraculous wealth” in Byzantine Beneficial Tales. The study of those texts led me to discover that I had perhaps more than just an article here, that there were some interesting themes worth exploring in the collection as a whole, even those not addressing money!

AD: Your subtitle speaks of “Authority and Autonomy at the End of the Antique World.” There seems to have been a number of books on authority, power, and social roles in the Christian East of late. What are we learning today about those issues in this time-period?

BLI: Patristic and other scholars of eastern Christianity and antiquity have done a great deal of magnificent work in the last decades of unpacking types of critical expression—one might even suggest subversion—present in the texts of the Christian East. Popularity of theorists like Foucault and Butler has also changed how we read now, and they assist us in understanding how language and ritual contributes to the subjugation of people, or specific groups, genders or castes. I believe that this is particularly important work, too, because I think that what we are finding—or, at least, what I am finding—is a variety of creative approaches to oppressive systems. I am heartened by little expressions, quiet moments of self-sufficiency that are demonstrated in the texts, and most especially when there is next to no comment because that speaks to the importance of the subversive method.

AD: You begin your preface with a winsome story about how you first encountered Moschos’ Spiritual Meadow, and the amusing story of the dead monk. Do we too often miss the humour in the literature of the desert and of the monastery? Are there others writing about the lighter side of monastic pursuits?

Yes, I think that we are so eager to ascribe serious, spiritual meaning to texts within religious history that we fail to see moments of levity. The The Sayings of the Desert Fathers are replete with humorous moments, such as the two monks who attempt but are unable to argue over a brick, or John the Dwarf being shut out of his cell without his cloak. Anyone who has spent time in a monastery knows that there are often subtle—or even not so subtle—glances, phrases or movements that carry with them deep significance, and that significance can be hilarious easily as well as spiritually transcendent. And if, in a monastery, that glance occurs when the observation of something funny is not appropriate, or when noise is not allowed, that can quickly reduce everyone at the table to silent tears of laughter. Such laughter is important, if for no other reason than the slightly naughty feeling one enjoys when one is laughing when one is supposed to be silent or serious. The British anthropologist Mary Douglas writes about precisely this in Implicit Meanings, in which she notes that the essence of a joke is the undermining of something formal by something informal, which affirms that tense and shifting relationship between authority figures and those over whom they claim authority. 

AD: You begin your introduction by admitting how little we know of John Moschos. Give us a quick sketch of what we do know about him with some certainty. 

Well, we do not know where or when he was born and there are scholarly arguments about when he died, but in between we do have a few details of which we can be fairly certain! He was a sixth-century, Chalcedonian Christian, possibly from Damascus. He began his monastic career at the large, well-organized monastery of St. Theodosius. Located about five miles from Bethlehem, this monastery housed hundreds of monks and was known as a site of hospitality for the physically and mentally ill, the elderly and the poor. At some point in his early monastic life he was joined by his companion—and future Patriarch of Jerusalem—Sophronios, who with John practiced two types of ascetic activity: a voluntary, rootless existence in which the monastic figure would be dependent entirely on the hospitality of others, and the collecting and writing of spiritually beneficial tales. For approximately forty years these two wandered through Palestine, Syria, Mount Sinai, Egypt and Rome. The debate about the time and place of John’s death is lively; what is more interesting to me is that after John’s death Sophronios, during a time of great unrest and instability in Palestine, endeavored to return his companion’s body to the monastery where they met; quite a poignant detail, in my opinion.

AD: You speak (pp. 10-11) of some difficulty in classifying Moschos’ writing, which has been seen as a series of “beneficial tales.” How should 21st-century readers approach him, and what should we expect in reading him?

I think that a twenty-first century reader might want to think of Moschos as a sixth-century “John Jacob Niles.” He was an American composer who believed that it was his duty and task to preserve early American music, in addition to writing and recording it. While many people recognize the popular Christmas folk hymn “I Wonder as I Wander,” we might not have had that hymn had Niles not heard strains of that Appalachian tune sung by a rag-tag girl with a beautiful voice. And while many people recognize the important account of St. Mary of Egypt attributed to Sophronios, we might not have had that vita had Moschos’ not heard strains of it and included it in his Meadow. In this way, I think that Moschos collected for spiritual posterity the snippets of beneficial tales of monks who found their way to one monastery or another, just as John Jacob Niles collected for cultural posterity the snippets of the music of British, Irish, Welsh and Scots who—in the nineteenth century—found their way from one country to another.

I make this comparison also because of your question about what to expect; I believe that because Moschos is a collector as much as a composer, and that because he is collecting tales of which only portions existed, that we should expect that much of what we are reading might be lost on us. That is not to say that we cannot derive either pleasure or joy from reading “spiritually beneficial tales,” for the name alone suggests several good things, but the casual reader must know going in that there are layers and elements of social, cultural or political history that are not obvious parts of the tale.

AD: Tell us about the influence of Moschos on monasticism in his own day, and does he remain influential today on monastic life in any way?
I am hesitant to suggest that Moschos was influential for monasticism in his day, much less for ours. This is not usually the claim that a scholar wants to make, really, for part of our job is to point out ways in which previously unexamined—or ‘under-examined’—people, ideas, events or artifacts are ‘oh so important.’ Sophronios’ was certainly influential for several reasons, but Moschos was, in many ways, more of a silent partner, even if the Spiritual Meadow is credited to him. As I reflect on the question, I think that the ways in which Moschos ‘matters’ is that aside from the text itself, his activity in the world affirms the variety of ascetic practices of the late sixth and early seventh centuries. Byzantine and patristic scholarship has demonstrated so well the ways in which monastic and ascetic figures interacted with lay persons in the Eastern Empire, a good reminder that not all monks are living behind walls or dying unseen in caves. Moschos also matters because his ascetic practices—walking around and writing—do not fit the traditional model of monastic discipline, and so this is an affirmation of the creativity of eastern monastic practices. Derek Krueger has written some important and insightful articles on this topic, and his work has been helpful for me in understanding the possibilities that exist beyond standard ascetic practices.

AD: Your third and fourth chapters treat medical issues and those of mortality. Are there spiritual or practical insights here that have perhaps been lost but should be recovered?

I was astounded to uncover so many accounts in the Meadow about medical issues, healing, suffering, dying, infertility, and so forth. It should not have surprised me, but it did, how many of the tales dealt with the frailty of our existence and an acute awareness of this. I was writing these two chapters on curing, enduring, death and dying while a friend of mine was dying of cancer. Naturally this had an impact on the way I read and the way I wrote, and that—as much as the texts—has refined my thinking on this theme. My reading of monastic texts, martyr accounts and theoretical approaches to suffering and pain has led me to conclude that an individual in pain forms a relationship with that pain. We cannot just treat pain as something independent of the body and mind of one in pain: we must also treat the relationship with that pain, and, further, we must consider why one forms that relationship to begin with. This manifests itself in monastic texts as “spiritual sickness” or the “ascetic sick role.” This relationship might have at its core a physical reason, or it might be emotional, cultural or spiritual. Either way, illness is used in monastic and ascetic environments for a purpose, and we can assume that this is true of laity as well. We would be wise to think about how illness is used and what it means to people as we seek treatment for their bodies or seek to force treatment upon them. We should also consider if treatment is even what is needed. I suppose if there is a spiritual or practical insight that has been lost but should be recovered, as you ask, it might be to remember that death is also a form of treatment, and illness might also be a cure.

AD: Sum up the book for us and who should read it.
This book is an attempt to uncover some of the social history of late sixth-century life among monastics, desert ascetics, and the laity they encountered and lived among. I make no claims that we can know this period perfectly, but I think that these spiritually beneficial tales can provide us with glimpses of how individuals on the fringes lived and how they might have thought about basic life issues such as Christian discipline, getting, giving or losing money, ill or good health and dying. As for who should read it? I think that it is appropriate for those studying asceticism, Palestinian monasticism, early Byzantine or late Antique social history.

AD: What projects are you at work on now?

It seems that each of these chapters had prompted thinking for me, and each has—in its own way—pushed me towards some future project. The chapter on interaction between laity and ascetics has challenged me to think more about the development of Christian asceticism independent of organized communities; the chapter on death has challenged me to think about how soteriology is understood and defined among monks and the chapter on healthcare has challenged me to think about the use of suffering and pain. As for the chapter on economics? I think I am done thinking about that for some time! My most current work is on the martyr Stephen the Younger. I was invited to think the use of pain imagery in Byzantine martyr vitae at a conference last year with Dr. Vasiliki Limberis and Dr. James Skedros, and this has led me—quite possibly—to my next large project.

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