Peter trembled and fumbled over his words, uncompleted words, and it was only when Christ put his hand upon Peter’s shoulder was he able to bring himself, at best, under control, but he was unable to take his eyes off the face of the Master in which Peter recognised the inconceivable sorrow and broken-heartedness he had witnessed at the last supper. Continue reading Quo Vadis Petre?
By Elaine Pagels Barnard College The University Lecture in Religion Arizona State University January 28, 1982
An extraordinary archaeological discovery is currently transforming our understanding of early Christianity and its mysterious founder. The discovery occurred unexpectedly and quite by accident. In December of 1945, the same year that the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the desert caves of Qumran in Israel, an Arab peasant named Muḥammad ‘Alī Khalīfah al-Sammān saddled his camel and rode out with his brother[‘s] [Khalifah] from their village to a cliff [Jabal al-Ţārif] near the town of Najʿ Ḥammādī in Upper Egypt to dig for sebakh [fertiliser], the soft soil that they use to fertilise their crops.
As he was digging near the cliff, Muhammad Ali struck something underground. There, to his astonishment, he unearthed a large earthenware jar, about six feet high; lying next to it, he found a corpse. Muhammad Ali says that he hesitated to break the jar, fearing that a jinn—a spirit—might live inside. But hope overcame fear; as he considered that it might contain gold or buried treasure, he raised his mattock, smashed the jar, and discovered, much to his disappointment, that it contained neither. Instead, it held thirteen ancient papyrus volumes, bound in tooled gazelle leather. Muhammad Ali could not read his own language, Arabic, much less the peculiar script of these texts; but he took them home, and dumped them on the ground near the stove. Later his mother admitted that she threw some of the papyrus into the fire for kindling, while she was baking bread.
A few weeks later, Muhammad and his brothers were indicted for murder. For some time they had been on the lookout for the man who had killed their father in a blood feud. When a neighbour spotted their father’s killer nearby, the brothers ambushed and attacked him, “hacked off his limbs … ripped out his heart, and devoured it among them, as the ultimate act of blood revenge.”
Fearing that the police investigating the murder would search his house, find the ancient books, and charge him not only with murder but with illegal possession of antiquities, Muhammad Ali asked a local Coptic priest to keep them for him. He had already tried to sell them to the villagers; and, although no one would even trade him a pack of cigarettes for them, Muhammad Ali still hoped to make some money from the find.
Arrested for murder, Muhammad Ali and his brothers served six months in jail. During that time, a local teacher from his village went to the priest and borrowed one of the books to see whether he could sell it on the black market for antiquities in Cairo.
There a French historian, Jean Doresse, saw the text and recognised the language as Coptic—the language of Egypt nearly 2,000 years ago. Doresse realised that one of the texts was a Coptic translation from Greek—the original language of the New Testament. Further, he identified the opening lines with fragments of a Greek Gospel of Thomas, discovered in Egypt not long before.
An eminent Dutch historian of religion, Professor Gilles Quispel of Leiden, hearing of the discovery, flew to Cairo to examine these mysterious texts. Quispel says he was astonished, as he rushed back to his hotel, to trace out the first line of one of the texts, and read the following: “These are the secret words which the Living Jesus spoke, and which the twin, Judas Thomas, wrote down.” Did Jesus have a twin brother, as this text implies? Could it be an authentic record of Jesus’ sayings? According to its title, it contained the Gospel According to Thomas. Yet, unlike the gospels of the New Testament, this text identified itself as a secret gospel. Quispel went on to discover that this gospel contained many sayings that parallel those in the New Testament; yet others were strikingly different, sayings as strange and compelling as Zen koans:
Jesus said, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.’’ Gospel of Thomas
Bound into the same volume, Quispel found the Gospel of Philip, which attributes to Jesus acts and sayings very different from those of the New Testament:
The companion of the (Saviour is) Mary Magdelene. (But Christ loved) her more than (all) the disciples, and used to kiss her (often) on her (mouth). The best of the disciples (were offended) … they said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?” The Saviour answered and said to them, “Why do I not love you as (I love) her?” Gospel of Philip
Muhammad Ali later admitted that some of the texts were lost, burned up or thrown away. But what remains is astonishing: some fifty-two texts from the early centuries of the Christian era, including a collection of Christian gospels previously unknown, except by title, including the Gospel to the Egyptians [or Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit], and the Gospel of Philip, as well as many other writings attributed to Jesus’ followers, such as the Secret Book of John, the Letter of Peter to Philip, and the Apocalypse of Peter. The texts themselves, written in Coptic, date to the third or fourth century A.D. Yet what Muhammad Ali found are translations of still more ancient manuscripts; some of the originals, written in Greek, may be much earlier. Although scholars sharply debate their dating, Professor Helmut Heinrich Karl Ernst Köester († 2016) of Harvard University recently has suggested that the Gospel of Thomas contains a collection of sayings that may predate the gospels of the New Testament. If the earliest of the New Testament gospels, the gospel of Mark, dates from about 70 A.D., the Gospel of Thomas he argues, may date back a generation earlier. This newly discovered gospel, in fact, resembles the kind of source that the authors of Matthew and Luke used to compose their own gospels.
Why were the texts buried, and why have they remained virtually unknown for nearly 2,000 years? They were buried, apparently, around 370 A.D., after the archbishop of Alexandria sent out an order to Christians all over Egypt banning such books as “heresy” and demanding their destruction. Long before that, such works already had been attacked by another zealously orthodox bishop, Irenaeus of Lyons. Irenaeus wrote a five-volume work, called “On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis“ [Ἔλεγχος καὶ ἀνατροπὴ τῆς ψευδωνύμου γνώσεως, Elenchos kai anatropē tēs pseudōnymou gnōseōs,] declaring that “the heretics boast that they have more gospels than there really are … but really, they have gospels that are full of blasphemy.”  Only the four gospels of the New Testament, Irenaeus insists, are authentic. What is his reasoning? Irenaeus declares that just as there are only four principal winds, and four comers of the universe, so there can be only four gospels. Besides, he adds, only the New Testament gospels are written by Jesus’ own disciples (Matthew and John) or their followers (Mark and Luke). Yet few New Testament scholars today would agree with Irenaeus. Although the gospels of the New Testament—like those discovered at Nag Hammadi—are attributed to Jesus’ followers, no one knows who actually wrote any of them; furthermore, what we know about their dating makes the traditional assumptions, in all cases, extremely unlikely.
Irenaeus’ statement reminds us, however, that the collection of books we call the “New Testament” was formed as late as 200 A.D. Before that time, many gospels circulated throughout the Christian communities that were scattered from Asia Minor to Greece, Rome, Gaul, Spain, and Africa. Yet by the late second century, bishops of the church who called themselves “orthodox” rejected all but four of these gospels, denouncing all the rest as, in Irenaeus’ words, “an abyss of madness, and blasphemy against Christ.”
Those who circulated and revered these writings, however, did not think of themselves as heretics, but as Christians who had received, in addition to Christ’s public preaching, other, secret teaching which, they say, he reserved only for a select few. The New Testament gospel of Mark, indeed, indicates that Jesus taught certain things in public, and others in private, to his disciples alone: “To you is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God, but to those outside all things are in parables, so that seeing, they may not perceive, and hearing, they may not understand.”  The apostle Paul, too, declares that he hides teachings concerning secret wisdom and mysteries from the majority of his hearers, entrusting them only to those he calls “initiated,” or “spiritual” Christians. 
The gnostic writings discovered at Naj Hammadi claim to offer such secret teaching. Those who receive it are called gnostics, literally, “those who know,” from the Greek word gnosis, usually translated “knowledge.” As gnostic Christians use the term, it might better be translated “insight,” since it connotes an intuitive type of knowledge—knowledge which communicates wisdom, or spiritual enlightenment. One gnostic teacher says that the gnostic is one who has come to understand:
Who we were, and what we have become; where we were … whither we are going; from what we are being released; what birth is, and what is rebirth. Theodotus, cited in Clemens Alexandrinus Excerpta ex Theodoto
Another gnostic teacher says:
Abandon the search for God and the creator and other things like that. Look for Him by taking yourselves as the starting point. Learn who it is within you who makes everything his own, and says, ‘My God, my soul, my body.’ Learn the sources of sorrow, joy, love, hate…. If you carefully investigate these things, you will find Him in yourself. Hippolytus, Refutationis omnium Haeresium 1
I first encountered these texts as a graduate student at Harvard, where I had gone to study the history of Christianity. Astonished to learn of the discovery, wanted to know, how do these newly discovered texts compare with the gospels of the New Testament? At the moment, I can mention only a few of the most obvious points of comparison.
At a time when other Christians insisted that Jesus rose bodily from the grave, gnostic Christians tended to ridicule that view as naive, or, in their words, the “faith of fools.” The Treatise on Resurrection, discovered at Naj Hammadi, offers instead a symbolic interpretation of resurrection. Like a Buddhist teacher, its author describes ordinary human existence as a state of spiritual “death.” But resurrection symbolises the moment of enlightenment: “It is … the revelation of what truly exists, and a transition into newness.” Whoever grasps this, the author suggests, becomes spiritually alive. This means, he declares, that you can become “raised from the dead” right now. “Are you —the real you— mere corruption…? Why do you not examine your own self, and see that you have arisen?” 
Secondly, at a time when many Christians, following the gospels of Matthew and Luke, insisted that Jesus’ birth was utterly miraculous—that he was “born from a virgin,” without Joseph’s participation—some gnostic Christians suggested instead a different interpretation. The Gospel of Philip suggests that “virgin birth” is a symbolic interpretation of Jesus’ spiritual birth through what the text calls the “holy virginal spirit.”
Or let us take a third example. While orthodox Christians spoke of God in the exclusively masculine terms borrowed from Judaism —as Father, Lord, Master, King, and Judge— some gnostic Christians chose to describe God in both masculine and feminine terms, as Father and Mother. The Secret Book of John, discovered at Naj Hammadi, tells how John, grieving over Christ’s death, receives a vision of the Lord, in which he says, “John, John, why do you weep? … I am the one who is with you always … I am the Father; I am the Mother; and I am the Son.”  The Gospel of Thomas, similarly, relates that Jesus left his human parents, Mary and Joseph, for his “true Father in heaven,” and his “true Mother,” the holy spirit.
Of all the remarkable differences between the New Testament gospels and those discovered at Naj Hammadi, however, I find most striking the alternate views the latter offer of Jesus himself — and of his message.
According to the gospels of the New Testament (let us take, for example, the one that most scholars agree is the earliest, the gospel of Mark), Jesus first appears proclaiming the “good news of the kingdom of God.” What is that “good news?” According to Mark, Jesus announced that “the time is at hand; the kingdom of God is drawing near.” As Mark sees it, Jesus declared that the end of time is at hand; the world is about to undergo cataclysmic transformation. Jesus predicted war, strife, conflict, and suffering, followed by a world-shattering event—the coming of the kingdom of God. According to Mark, Jesus expected that event to happen during the life of his own disciples: “There are some of you standing here who shall not taste death until you see the kingdom of God come with power.” 
The gnostic Gospel of Thomas, on the contrary, says something very different. Here the “kingdom of God” is not an event expected to happen in history, nor is it a “place.” In fact, the author of Thomas seems to ridicule such views as naive:
Jesus said, “If those who lead you say to you, ‘See, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you.” Gospel of Thomas Saying 3
According to the Gospel of Thomas, the kingdom represents a state of self- discovery: “Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realise that it is you who are the sons of the living Father.” But the disciples, mistaking that “kingdom” for a future event, persist in naive questioning:
“When will . . . the new world come?” Jesus said to them, “What you look forward to has already come, but you do not recognise it.” 
According to saying 113, the disciples said to him, “When will the kingdom come?” Jesus said: It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying, ‘Here it is,’ or There it is.’ Rather, the kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it. Gospel of Thomas saying 51 & saying 113
According to the Gospel of Thomas, then, the “kingdom of God” symbolises a state of transformed consciousness:
Jesus saw infants being suckled. He said to his disciples, ‘These infants being suckled are like those who enter the kingdom.’ They said to him, ‘Will we, then, as children, enter the kingdom?’ Jesus said to them, ‘When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside, the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same … then you shall enter the Kingdom.’ Gospel of Thomas saying 22
One enters that “kingdom” when one comes to know oneself. For the secret of gnosis is that when one comes to know oneself, at the deepest level, simultaneously one comes to know God as the source of one’s being.
If we ask, then, “who is Jesus?” the Gospel of Thomas gives a wholly different answer from the gospels of the New Testament. Mark, for example, depicts Jesus as an utterly unique being —the Messiah, God’s appointed king. As Mark tells it, Peter discovered the secret of Jesus’ identity:
And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Casarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do men say that I am?’ And they told him ‘John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets. And he asked them, ‘But who do you say that 1am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ Mark 8:27-29
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Compare Me to someone, and tell Me whom I am like.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘You are like a righteous messenger.’ Matthew said to him, ‘You are like a wise philosopher.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying whom You are like.Gospel of Thomas saying 13
The author of Thomas here interprets, for Greek-speaking readers, Matthew’s portrait of Jesus as rabbinic teacher (“wise philosopher”), and Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah (“righteous messenger”). Here Jesus does not deny these roles, at least in relation to Matthew and Peter. But here they —and their answers— represent an inferior level of understanding. Thomas, who recognises that he cannot assign any specific role to Jesus, transcends, at that moment, the relation of disciple to master. At this moment of recognition, Jesus declares that Thomas has become like Himself:
I am not your Master, for you have drunk, and become drunk from the bubbling stream I measured out…. Whoever drinks from my mouth will become as I am, and I myself will become that person, and things that are hidden will be revealed to him. Gospel of Thomas 34:30-35. 7
The New Testament gospel of John emphasises Jesus’ uniqueness even more strongly than does Mark. According to John, Jesus is not a human being at all; rather, he is the divine and eternal Word of God, God’s “only begotten son,” who descends to earth in human form, to rescue the human race from eternal damnation:
God so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes on him should not perish, but have eternal life:… Whoever believes on him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe on him is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. John 3:16-18
If you recall that saying we noted before from the Gospel of Thomas, you will see that Thomas offers a very different message. Far from regarding himself as the “only begotten” son of God, Jesus here says to his disciples, “when you come to know yourselves” (and discover the divine within you) then “you will recognise that it is you who are the sons of the living Father” — just like Jesus! The gnostic Gospel of Truth, similarly, declares that “you are the sons of interior knowledge… Say, then, from the heart that you are the perfect day, and in you dwells the light that does not fail.” The Gospel of Philip makes the same point more succinctly: you are to “become not a Christian, but a Christ.” This, I suggest, is the symbolic meaning of attributing the Gospel of Thomas to Jesus’ “twin brother.” The statement is meant to say, in effect, that ‘‘you, the reader, are the twin brother of Christ; when you recognise the divine within you, then you come to see, as Thomas does, that you and Jesus are, so to speak, identical twins.” So, according to the Book of Thomas the Contender, also discovered at Naj Hammadi, Jesus says to Thomas (that is, to the reader):
Since it has been said that you are my twin and true companion, examine yourself, so that you may understand who you are…. Since you are called my brother, it is not fitting that you be ignorant of yourself…. I (says Jesus) am the knowledge of the truth. So while you accompany me, although you do not yet understand it, you have already come to know, and you will be called ‘the one who knows himself.’ For whoever has not known himself has known nothing, but he who has known himself has simultaneously already achieved knowledge about the depth of all things. 
One who seeks to “become not a Christian, but a Christ” no longer looks to Jesus, as orthodox believers do, as the source of all truth. So, while the Jesus of John declares, “I am the door; whoever enters through me shall be saved,” the gnostic teacher, Silvanus [see the teachings of Silvanus,] points in a different direction:
Knock upon yourself as upon a door, and walk upon yourself as on a straight road. For if you walk upon that road, it is impossible for you to go astray…. Open the door for yourself, that you may know what is— Whatever you open for yourself, you will open. The Book of Thomas the Contender 138. 7-18.
Or, to take one more example: according to John, when Thomas says to Jesus, “We do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus replies, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, except through me.” Yet according to the gnostic Dialogue of Saviour, when the disciples ask Jesus the same question (“What is the place to which we shall go?”) he directs each disciple toward his or her own way: “The place which you can reach, stand there!” The Gospel of Thomas says that when the disciples ask Jesus how they can reach the place where he stands, his ironic answer turns them back upon their own resources: they are not to attempt merely to follow his way, or imitate him; instead, they are to go to themselves, and find their own way.
Since I first encountered these gnostic texts, I found myself fascinated. I kept asking myself, what is so terrible, so blasphemous, so “heretical” about these gospels and the portrait of Jesus they offer? Why is it that, by 200 A.D., the bishops had banished virtually every trace of these remarkable writings, and condemned them as the most despicable heresy? Why did such able Christian leaders as Irenaeus and Tertullian devote their energies to attacking and destroying such sources, rather than accepting them as offering compelling alternate views of Jesus?
Orthodox writers themselves (and historians, following their lead) have told us that they objected to gnostic views for religious and philosophic reasons. Certainly they did; even in this brief sketch we have seen some of the ways in which gnostic sources differ. But as I spent years working to edit and continue research on these sources, I found the traditional answers inadequate. Why, I wondered, did church leaders insist that these religious differences threatened the very survival of the church itself? I began to reflect that the struggle with gnosticism occurred at the very time when earlier, diversified forms of Christianity were giving way to a single, unified institutional structure. The second century witnessed the development of church leadership into a formal hierarchy of bishops, priests, and deacons; simultaneously, Christian teaching was formulated into a creed, and came to be protected by a specific canon — the New Testament. Church hierarchy, creed, and canon all contribute to develop for the first time, uniform doctrine, practice, and discipline among the various churches scattered throughout the known world. Realising this, I began to suspect that the reasons for suppressing gnosticism were —to a considerable extent— political; that is, they involved the politics of the institutionalisation of Christianity.
What happened, in simplest terms, is this: those elements of early Jesus tradition that contributed to this process of institutionalisation came to be called “orthodox.” Conversely, elements of tradition that either did not support the institutional church (or actually opposed it) came to be called “heresy.” I suggest, for example, that if you were the leader of a second century Christian community, concerned to consolidate the church and validate it as the sole hope for human salvation, there are certain things you might prefer that Jesus not have said — for example, the saying with which we began, from the Gospel of Thomas (“Jesus said, if you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.”) Such a saying makes no suggestion that one needs a church, a priest, baptism, or a creed; one hardly needs Jesus, except to point the way toward one’s own solitary, interior search for truth.
But sayings from the gospels that came to be called “orthodox” bear the opposite implication. Recall the one that we noted from the Gospel of John: (“Jesus said, I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, except through me.”) Whoever drives through the United States is likely to see this saying on highway billboards, billboards signed by any one of the local churches. Their purpose is clear: by indicating that one finds God only through Jesus, the saying implies that one finds Jesus only through the church. Yet, I suggest, you will never see on a billboard the gnostic counterpart of this saying. (The disciples asked Jesus, “What is the place to which we should go?” Jesus said, “The place which you can reach, stand there.”) Who would pay for it? Publishing such a saying would not serve the interests of any church. Only those views of Jesus which stress his uniqueness as Messiah, Lord, Saviour, “only begotten Son of God” came to be accepted as “orthodox,” I suggest, since only this interpretation of Jesus served to validate the claims of the catholic church of the second century —and ever since— that “outside the church there is no salvation.”
The portrait of Jesus offered in gnostic sources, as we have seen, suggests the opposite. The “living Jesus” of the Gospel of Thomas points one not toward the church, but toward oneself— toward a solitary, radically individualistic process of spiritual exploration. Such sayings not only tend to undermine the church’s claims, but may render them irrelevant, or even false. One gnostic text, indeed, attributes to Jesus sharp criticism of the claims of church leaders:
“Others, outside our number call themselves deacons and also bishops, as if they have received their authority from God. These people are waterless canals”Apocalypse of Peter
One final note, to avoid misunderstanding: I do not mean to say that church leaders acted in a deliberately Machiavellian way to suppress gnostic Christianity, simply to consolidate their own power and importance. Some Marxist historians might say that, and so attempt to reduce all religious issues to political ones. What I suggest follows the direction not of Marx but of the sociologist Max Weber, who has shown how religious and political issues interact, in various forms of reciprocal relationship, in the history of religious movements. Further, Weber shows that while religious movements generally begin with a charismatic figure (like Jesus of Nazareth), the only ones that survive historically are those that develop, within the first several generations of the founder’s death, effective means of institutionalisation.
Had the Christian movement not developed such institutional structures, it probably would have disappeared among hundreds of other Greco-Roman cults. I believe that we owe the survival of Christian tradition to the organisational and theological structure that the Orthodox Church developed. But the discovery at Naj Hammadi allows us to see, for the first time, what was lost in the process —some remarkable alternate views of Jesus and his message.
Elaine Hiesey Pagels was born in Palo Alto, California. After receiving a B.A. with honours in 1964 and an M.A. in Classics in 1965, both from Stanford University, she entered the doctoral program in religion at Harvard University. During that program of study she received a Harvard University Fellowship, a Kent Fellowship for study at the University of Oxford, and a Rockefeller Fellowship. She completed the Ph.D. with distinction in 1970 and since that time has taught in the Department of Religious Studies at Barnard College.
Professor Pagels has published numerous articles and essays and has been involved in the preparation and publication of several Najʿ Ḥammādī treatises as a member of the International Committee for the Najʿ Ḥammādī Codices. She has also written The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis, and Paul the Gnostic: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters. Her 1979 publication, The Gnostic Gospels, won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the American Book Award.
Post-doctoral research by Professor Pagels has been supported by numerous grants and awards. She received a Fellowship for Young Humanists from the National Foundation for the Humanities, a Rockefeller Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, grants from the American Philosophical Society and the American Council of Learned Societies, and was twice a Hazen Fellow as well as a Mellon Fellow for Humanistic Studies. Recently she was awarded the MacArthur Prize Fellowship for 1981-1986.
With her husband, Heinz R. Pagels, Professor of Theoretical Physics at Rockefeller University, and their son, Mark William, Professor Pagels lives in Mew York City.
The University Lecture in Religion at Arizona State University presents an original scholarly study in the field of religion to the general academic community. The 1979-80 lecture inaugurating this series was given by Professor Jacob Meusner of Brown University. Professor Giles Gunn, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, gave the University Lecture for 1980-81.Continue reading “The Gnostic Jesus and Early Christian Politics.”
o ensure that Christianity and ecology are compatible, one cannot depart from the conception of creation as a work and gift of God. The most frequent error in which an ideological approach expires is found in the tendency to absolutise nature starting from the good intention of wanting safeguard. Continue reading Christianity and Ecology can only be compatible when God is at their centre.
Creation from the beginning has a destiny, a purpose. And it has an appointed goal towards which it moves. It is not value-neutral as some would have us believe. It has value and purpose designed by God the Creator. There is no creation ‘in the beginning’ without its future orientation or eschatological vision. As creation moves toward its appointed goal, God continues to act as its creator and preserver. The question is: how can we work with God the Creator here and now in his continuing work of creation and preservation? Continue reading Belief in God the Creator – A Call to Make a Difference in the Household of Life.
Those who pay the price for evils and injustices are the just, not the unjust. The world is full of people, whom we do not even consider as such, who are paid for the evil done by others: they are the excluded.
In ancient times lepers were the excluded ‘par excellence’: one who has been stripped of all dignity as a person, a non-person. The leper is perceived as a walking corpse, which slowly deforms and whoever touches it is quite easily contaminated: the leper represents absolute evil and visible death. The law of the leper is complete exclusion, ostracism, banishment: they were the ordinary citizen dead, the living dead, not yet physically dead but cut off from any and all family ties and relationships. The leper also represented that fundamental death which is solitude followed by that real death, illness, which was the cause for exclusion.
The leper is an extremely powerful image to expose to view, that humanity lives its entire existence accompanied by a fear of death and that, moving forward, they become old, and if all goes according to plan, will loose only a few bits and pieces. In some respects, therefore, life is nothing more than decay: a discarding of the flesh and then, first and foremost that profound form of leprosy which is expulsion, solitude and exclusion.
Mark 1:40-44 “A man with leprosy approached and, kneeling before him, begged him, “If you choose to do so, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately, the leprosy left him and he was cured. Jesus then sent him away at once, after first sternly warning him, “See that you tell no one anything about this. Just go and show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed. That will be proof for them.”
“Jesus then sent him away at once, after first sternly warning him, “See that you tell no one anything about this. Just go and show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed. That will be proof for them.”
We are witnesses to a multitude of transgressions. The first being that the leper actually approaches Jesus: the lepers where prohibited from approaching let alone getting close to someone. The second, surprisingly, is that Jesus physically touches him: healthy citizens were prohibited from touching lepers, otherwise they too would become unclean. Thirdly, we are filled with wonder at what Jesus actually said to the leper “See that you tell no one anything about this” and then sends the leper away in order that he may present himself to the priests at the temple … sorry… hang on a minute… am I not to say anything to anyone or should I speak? The fourth being that the leper, instead of making his way into Jerusalem, goes to announce the good news. The fifth is that from that moment onward Jesus stays away and tends to remain in deserted places, just like the lepers who are made to stay away from everyone and have to live in deserted places, far from villages, towns, cities, a total exclusion from the human community.
“A man with leprosy approached and, kneeling before him, begged him, “If you choose to do so, you can make me clean.”
We have a right to go to God. Not because we are good, beautiful or even true adherents of Christianity. All that excludes us from life is the title we have to go toward God: just as someone would go to a doctor when they are ill. Over the years I’ve heard many people say “I’m not worthy”: no; instead, this is the only title we have. A leper, therefore, embodies every human being and their leprosy and consequently, a leper is every human with his lepers, their banishment, their solitude, the feelings of guilt they are burdened with.
The leper supplicates, on his knees. Man for himself is in vocation and prayer. Falling to his knees, he lets go of his modesty: we always seem to be ashamed to ask and recognize that our limitation is our need for others. This person finally wants, prays for a beautiful and good life, integrated, physically and socially and religiously and with all of humanity. The word prayer has the same root word as precarious ‘precārium’ to entreaty or petition: it means that you can live on what someone else has given you and can also take away from you again, but he has given it to you. All of us basically live off what the other gives us, our existence is based upon the relationship that others grant us. If they cut us off, we are finished.
So, every relationship is the object of prayer: you cannot misappropriate a relationship if it's not a relationship. Prayer is the fundamental covenant of humanity; an animal will simply take something they want by force if its stronger, whilst a person tends to asks for something they want. What satisfies is not that you have stolen or taken something, but that which is given to you out of love or mercy, out of goodness. This is the essence and significance of prayer which exists within every single relationship. We are all precarious in the sense that it actually constitutes who we are, aware of the limits, of the need we have for others and therefore the request, ‘the prayer.’ In every relationships we cannot demand or insist on anything at all from the other because that person would not give it to you: its a gift.
Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!”
In translations of this passage, one usually reads that Jesus was “moved.” Though many codexes state that he was ireful, angry, and it sounds bad, but if something sounds bad, its generally far more genuine. Jesus gets angry in front of evil, while we resign ourselves. He will also be angry at the Pharisees, at moral evil. Wrath is salvific if it is not against a people but against evil. Also this reading, “Angry,” is quite captivating: when God becomes angry it is always a good sign, it means “I am tired of this now, I have lost my patience, we need to change the situation.” It should be stressed that this feeling of rejection is in regard to the disease, compared to something that makes you a prisoner, with the attitude that seems to have taken hold of a person, but not with the person themselves.
The result of this ire and emotion is Jesus holding out his hand. The hand is power: with a hand God brought Israel out of Egypt, with their hands mankind acts. Using one’s hands and no longer one’s bite are the principles of humanisation. The sensation of touch is the only reciprocal action that exists: I can look but not be seen, listen and not be heard, but if you touch me then I have been touched.
Violation of the law. The law serves to prevent the spread of evil. In the case of leprosy, the first law is that the leper cannot come near anyone, the second is that he must not be touched; and if one does not respect these rules, leprosy spreads and everything is over. Undoubtedly, there is a rationality to this. The law judges a person and condemns them, but it does not save: it condemns not so much the evil committed but the criminal, used as a deterrent against evil. Jesus, on the other hand, does not condemn evildoers but frees them from evil, therefore its no longer the law. Jesus' dissension with the law is not because he believes that the law is wrong, laws indicate whom society considers to be right and who has erred, and those who are sick, yet if one is sick, what would a doctor do? Does he eliminate them? No, he cures them.
Immediately, the leprosy left him and he was cured. Jesus then sent him away at once…
It seems surprising that Jesus sends him away. Why? Because there is something far more profound beneath his action: its not as though Jesus heals a person in order to get something in return or to make someone his dependant. When Jesus redeems the leper from isolation, sending the leper back into the fabric of relationships, Jesus hands him back his freedom as a person.
“See that you tell no one anything about this. Just go and show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed. That will be proof for them.”
Jesus wasn't seeking fame or notoriety, nor for people to come to him in order for a miracle to be performed: Jesus was far more interested in people living as children of God, as brothers and sisters. When Jesus’ asks the leper “not say anything to anyone,” almost immediately the opposite happens: in fact, the law prescribes the exclusion of lepers and that any healing that may have occurred must be confirmed by a priest [When duly confirmed as the Law requires (see Leviticus 14:2-3), the cure of a leper will attest to the priests the power of Jesus over an evil that destroys humans]. Now we shine a light on upon that controversy, being against the law it becomes a constant within the following passages: there is one who has transgressed the law of exclusion because he has touched the leper, and the leper has touched him, yet the leprosy was cured. This testifies to the fact that there is something other than the law: it is the gospel, the good news. The good news is that man can finally be free and therefore enables them to re-establish their relationships.
Cover picture by Davide Disca, «Benedizione», watercolour on handmade paper, 34 x 34 cm, © 2011
Continue reading “Evil cannot be cured through exclusion.”
My argument is based on fundamental Christian ethical assumptions. A reflection on the specific weight of Christian traditions and convictions is needed in order to develop a Christian contribution to a new consensus on our human responsibility towards non-human nature. Today these traditions and convictions have to be introduced into a pluralistic Continue reading Rights of Nature or Dignity of Nature?
As early as the third century, certain roles of service, including deacon, subdeacon, lector, and acolyte, were present in the church. These orders over time became linked to preparation for the priesthood and were divided between “minor orders” (porter, exorcist, lector, and acolyte) and “major orders” (subdeacon, deacon, and priest). Each order was received and its function performed for a suitable time before a man was ordained to the priesthood. Continue reading A look at Minor Orders: The Porter, Exorcist, Lector and Acolyte…
An example of this figure of a hermit friar and a farmer at the same time is that of Saint Fiacre, much venerated in France as protector of the Guild of gardeners, represented holding the spade and the gospel. An engraving by the brothers Johann and Raphael Sadelet, in the work of Maerten…. Continue reading Monastic Horticulture and Gardens
“My book is the nature of created things, and as often as I have a mind to read the words of God, they are at my hand.”Saint Antony the Great
Such was Antony’s answer to the enquiry of the visiting Greek philosopher who wondered how such a learned man as he, got along in the desert without the benefit of books.
In that answer lies the keynote of much that seems to us inexplicable about the life of the hermits. The truest of their kind were Nature lovers. Their years were “bound each to each by natural piety.” Anchorites and hermits like Paul and Antony of the Thebaid were the Wordsworth’s and Austin’s of ancient times, who saw and understood the beauties of God in the cliffs and cascades of the wilderness and the opening buds of the garden, even though they were not, like modern poets of nature, able to impart with their pens to others the thoughts inspired by mountain, rock, and sea. There has always been a certain class of men and women who has found the essence of life’s enjoyment in solitary meditation, or who has seen the highest motive of life to be the recognising of God in the works of Nature.
Quite apart from Christianity the spirit of the hermit is natural to some. Even in the philosophies of Greece we find the Stoics and Cynics studiously keeping apart from their fellows lest sympathy and contact with others should be a source of contamination. The wizards and witches of the dark ages are probably lineal descendants of the recluses of some old-world religion of fairies and goblins and nature worship. No one can read Sir Edwin Arnold’s “Light of Asia,” without at once being reminded, in Buddha’s history, of the hermits of Christianity, while the fakirs of modern India prove that the spirit of the hermit is not confined to times nor limited to certain areas.
Again and again has the world at its crises had its course marvellously altered by the unveiling of one of these veiled prophets—the coming forth into the light of common day from the darkness of retirement for the stemming of warfare, for the relief of those afflicted with pestilence, or for the righting of wrongs, of some hermit who, having learned to control his own will, is fittest to control the will of others.
Then the spirit of the hermit has appeared in a new light when giving vent to all the pent-up energies acquired by years of solitary retirement and meditation, as though he would atone for his seeming want of sympathy with his fellows by a superabundant supply in emergencies. Even so in Chrysostom’s early days the hermits came from their Syrian retirement and gained for Antioch pardon for the insult to the Statues. The Nitrian hermits came to nurse the plague-stricken Alexandrian’s, and Peter the Hermit fired the world with enthusiasm for the First Crusade.
There is something wildly fantastic and often sensationally romantic in the histories of hermits, yet beneath the sentiment and beneath the romance lies a reality — a stern reality of will’s endeavour to amputate from life the worst passions of nature, and often with them those which make nature loveable. There is a forgetfulness on the part of the hermit that the parable of the tares may be applied to the microcosmos of man’s own individual soul no less really than to the harvest field of God’s world.
Yet the hermit life was often in earlier times possibly an absolute necessity to many who entered upon it. Even in Anselm’s day the secular life, synonymous with that of sin, or the religious life of ascetic rule were the only alternatives. With all its flaws and its alienation from social life, the system of the hermit emphasised the grandest principle of the christian ethics —unselfishness and both in the Grecian and Roman communities made practical what S. Paul himself dared not even hint at— the abolition of slavery; for it taught that there was no disgrace in manual labour, and it taught this not merely in theory but in practice, when the cultured courtiers of the Byzantine or Roman palaces retired to sow and reap on the banks of the Nile, or nurse the sick in the pestilential slums of the great cities.
The origin of the name “hermit” is interesting. Its form in the writings of Jerome and in Latin deeds of the Middle Ages show its derivation at once from έρήμος—desert, for they adopted the word έρημιτης straight from the Greek Fathers. The hermit is essentially one who lives in the desert. Writers with a classical tinge kept the original form as late as Milton. In “Paradise Regained” we read :
“Thou Spirit, who ledst this glorious EremiteJohn Milton. Paradise Regain’d; Book 1, 1671.
Into the Desert, his Victorious Field
Though Spenser his predecessor in a pretty description of a hermitage and chapel spells the word “hermite.” [Cf. The Fairy Queen, Book. vi.,, Canto v.]
However, the Anglicised form had been used long before. In the original of Sir George Lancastre’s patent from Henry Earl of Northumberland in the 23rd year of Henry VIII, of the Conygarth with the Hermitage of Warkworth, it is repeatedly called interchangeably “Armitage” or “Harmytage.” In Dan Michel of Northgate’s curious old “Aȝenbite of Inwit—lit.: the again-biting of inner wit—or prick of conscience,” written in Kentish dialect of Middle English about AD 1340, we come upon the word “ermitage” in the quaint parable of how the priest in the temple of Mahomet was converted into a monk of Christ, though synchronously with this Sir John Mandeville uses the other form in his “Travels” “And at the deserts of Arabia, he went into a chapel where a hermit dwelt.” By and by, in the same chatty book, the word is prefixed with the aspirate when he tells why Mahomet cursed wine. [cf. “The travels of Sir John Mandeville: the version of the Cotton manuscript” ch. XV. pp. 94-95]
“And so it befell upon a night, that Mahomet was drunken of good wine, and he fell on sleep. And his men took Mahomet’s sword out of his sheath, whiles he slept, and therewith they slew this hermit, and put his sword all bloody in his sheath again. And at morrow, when he found the hermit dead, he was full sorry and wroth, and would have done his men to death. But they all, with one accord, said that he himself had slain him, when he was drunken, and shewed him his sword all bloody. And he trowed that they had said sooth. And then he cursed the wine and all those that drink it.”
In the history of Monasticism, hermits hold two distinct positions. In the first place hermits themselves gave rise originally to communities of monks. The example of one hermit drew others into the desert beside him, and so the Cenobitic monastery, became naturally evolved. In the second place, under the evolved monastic system, some continually sighed for stricter rules and more solitary meditation, and so, withdrawing from the common life of the brotherhood, took up their abode in some cell, perhaps near to the monastery. Such was the case with St. Cuthbert, who spent over 10 years living as a hermit on Inner Farne, withdrawing from the monastery of Lindisfarne, took up his abode in the cell of Farne Island.
Great master-minds, like St. Martin of Tours, have led the van by first being hermits themselves, then founding Cenobitic monasteries have subsequently retired to some more secluded spot among the mountains, or on some almost inaccessible ocean rock. Hence it is often difficult in investigating the origin of a hermitage near unto an abbey, to decide whether the cell was established first, and then led to the formation of the neighbouring abbey, as the Cell of Godric led to the founding of Finchale, near Durham, or whether an abbey was founded first, and then cells branched off from it, for the retirement of those, who, like St. Cuthbert, wished for further seclusion, or for the missionary extension of religion in dark places. Such possibly was the cell formed at Westoe, as a branch from Jarrow, and to the self-same status probably was Jarrow itself degraded afterwards, when it became simply a subordinate cell dependent upon the Abbey of Durham.
In Mediaeval England hermits seem often to have played the important part of officiating minister in places far from Abbey churches.
Indeed for the matter of that, parish priests in lonely spots have in much later times really led hermit lives.
In the latter part of the twelfth century, in the time of Hugh de Balliol, Lord of Bywell, Barnard Castle and Gainford, a certain hermit called Walter de Bolebec II gave to the monastery of Kelso his hermitage and church of St. Mary’s, in the waste and forest south of Hexham, probably at Slaley. From which we should judge that he had been the ministering spirit of the foresters, herdsmen, and moss-troopers of that region, until he founded for the Premonstratensian canons Blanchland Abbey of St Mary the Virgin, in 1165.
Generally with the hermit’s cell was a little chapel or oratory in which he could perform his own devotions, and to which he might invite the neighbouring cottagers to join him. Such seems to have been the object of the hermitage built at the end of the bridge at Stockport, in Cheshire, with its oratory of the fourteenth century.
To traverse the history of Christian hermits we must go to Eastern countries, ever the natural home of ascetism and mysticism, which are always tinged with fanaticism there, whether found in Jewish Essene or later Montanist.
The first recorded Christian hermit who prominently practised seclusion from his fellows was Paul of the Thebaid, whose life and miracles are so enthusiastically narrated by St. Jerome, the greatest advocate and promoter of asceticism, both for men and women, that the world has ever known.
Partly contemporary with Paul is Antony, whose life, written by St. Athanasius, reads more like a romance of the Arabian nights, with the wondrous tales of demonology and animal subjection to the hermit’s will. Antony, in his ruined castle by the Red Sea, thought himself the first and best of hermits when he reached the age of ninety, but it was revealed to him that there was beyond him, and better than he, a hermit whom he must visit. After marvellous adventures with Hippocentaurs, fauns, and satyrs, he arrived at the cave of Paul, whom he found to be 113 years old. An inseparable friendship sprang up between these two heroes of fasting and vigil, which lasted until Antony looked upon the form of the dead Paul still kneeling in prayer in his little oratory with stiffened hands uplifted to the skies, finding him even as the servants of David Livingstone (a man of modern times, but tinged with much of the good old hermit spirit which caused him to cut himself off from the luxuries of home life, that he might promote the crusade of Christianity in the desert wilds of South Africa) found their master.
The example of these hero hermits was quickly followed by numbers, until the Thebaid of Egypt and the Nitrian Desert were thickly populated with self-abnegating martyrs severing themselves from human love and human hope, as well as human sin.
The system spread rapidly into Syria, ripe ever for a revival of the Essene School, insomuch that soon it was difficult to get candidates for ordination, for the secluded life of meditation was held in higher esteem than the active missionary life of priesthood. The pages of “De Sacerdotio” show how difficult it was to uproot this doctrine even from the mind of St. Chrysostom, himself a hermit forcibly dragged to ordination and an active life.
But the growing error of the unpardonable nature of sin after baptism, caused yet more stringent application of ascetic exercises to prevent the yielding to passion, and developed that strange wild phase seen in the pillar saints, whose characteristic it was to raise themselves upon some solitary pillar many cubits high, and perhaps only three feet in diameter, and there undergo all changes of weather and all dreadful horrors, until the gruesome details make one sick to read them, and wonder that human will could so overmaster the feelings as to endure such torments voluntarily. But if the feelings were blunted and overmastered, so was the intellect; for the illusions, the visions, and even the miracles of these and other hermits are but the “frothy working of a mind diseased.”
Simeon Stylites was the pioneer of these pillar saints, and received his surname from this fact. The little monologue by Lord Tennyson, called after him, gives anyone who can read between the lines a singularly vivid picture of the inner working of his soul, and the motives that led to this strange life. Simeon was imitated by very many, and the fame of his saintliness and pseudo-miracles caused a perfect forest of pillars to begin to rise throughout Syria, some of the occupants of which even outsimeoned Simeon in the tenacity of their endurance.
The spirit of the hermit passed to the Latin world, but here it received a modulation due partly to the general legal constitution of the Latin world, partly to the Augustinian Theology of the age, and the solitary hermit founded the Cenobitic monastery, with its rules and order without the wild impetuous fanaticism and mysticism that marked the Eastern monk.
The monks of the West, in the spirit of the West, tended to the study of men and human nature, and the works of man in literature and art. Yet some there are imbued with a love of Nature in her wildness, who can meditate on God and His works better in solitude, and so we find still the hermit leaving his monastic cell, and taking up his abode in mountain cave, or on some rocky islet even in the West.
Again as in the East the Eremitic system is the check to serfdom; side by side with the overweening Norman baron is the baronial abbot laying aside his robes of office, and passing out to the hermit life, tilling the ground, digging out his cell, and showing it is no disgrace to work, but a glory.
In England, we more frequently find instances of the Anchorite, who has a little chamber in connection with some abbey or church, wherein he dwells. Sometimes he immures himself so that he cannot get out, and is fed through some hole in his enclosure.
The picture we give of “Hermits and Hermitages” is from a MS Book of Hours, executed for Richard H. (British Museum, Cotton Domitian, A. xvii., folio 4 v.). “The artist” says the Rev. Edward L. Cutts, “probably intended to represent the old hermits of the Egyptian desert. Piers Ploughman’s —
“Holy eremites That lived wild in woods With bears and lions;”
but after the custom of mediaeval art, he has introduced the scenery, costume, and architecture of his own time. Erase the bears which stand for the whole tribe of outlandish beasts, and we have a very pretty bit of English Mountain scenery. The stags are characteristic enough of the scenery of mediaeval England. The hermitage on the right seems to be of the ruder sort, made in part of wattled work. On the left we have the more usual hermitage of stone, with the little chapel bell, in the bell-cot on the gable. The venerable old hermit, coming out of the doorway, is a charming illustration of the typical hermit, with his long beard, and his form bowed by age, leaning with one hand on his cross-staff, and carrying his rosary in the other.”
The hermitage or reclusorium at Hambledon, Hants., is connected with a large thirteenth century church. Built in the angle between the tower and the West end of the South aisle, its date is probably of the fourteenth century. It consisted of two large rooms, one above the other. The upper one, of which the floor is now removed, shows a drain pipe still remaining through the wall to the exterior, and this room probably the recluse would use as his ordinary dwelling-room and kitchen. There was a door in the upper room leading by a gallery through the South aisle to the parvise of the adjacent porch, so that our friend had the use of three good-sized rooms. The original wooden door in the wall of the parvise still remains. Nothing has been ascertained as to the person for whom this hospitium was erected. He is spoken of in some old documents at Winchester as the hermit at Hambledon, but the size of the rooms points to some different manner of life to that usually followed by a recluse. He may have been the sacristan, or conductor of the church music, or in some other way devoted his time and talents to the service of the church. There is no outer door, but access was obtained from the church of which the building is now used as the vestry.
Another anchorage at Walpole St. Andrews, Norfolk, is a much smaller edifice, and seems meant as a convenient receptacle for a devotee to immure himself therein alive. This cell of a holy man was probably much resorted to by superstitious dwellers in marshland.
Against the North wall of the church of Ss. Mary and Cuthbert, at Chester-le-Street, was formerly an anchorage of four rooms. In later times this was used as the vicarage.
Similar instances are found at Durham Cathedral. Over the great north doorway, with its dragon-head knocker, was a little room, wherein stayed two monks, ever ready to go down and open the door for the refugee when he rang the knocker of sanctuary. Again between the North aisle of the choir and the Nine Altars was a grand porch called the Anchorage. “Here dwelt an anchorite, whereunto the priors very much resorted, both for the excellency of the place, as also to hear mass, standing so conveniently unto the high altar, and withal so near a neighbour to the shrine of St. Cuthbert.”
There was a regular service in the Salisbury Manual ( Cf. Baxter Philip. Sarum use: the development of a medieval code of liturgy and customs) for the walling in of anchorites.
Even women thus immured themselves, like those three nuns at Kingston Tarrant, in Dorset, for whom the thirteenth century “Ancren Riwle” —a treatise on the rules and duties of monastic life— was written.
Hagioscopes* in the North or south side of the chancel from little chambers behind in so many churches testify to the frequency of these immured anchorites. This, indeed, was the common form of hermit in the South and midland counties, and to this kind the darker aspects of the ascetic hermit, unhealthy Christianity, weakened intellect, and demoralised humanity, essentially belong. [*Hagioscopes or squint is an architectural term denoting a small splayed opening or tunnel at seated eye-level, through an internal masonry dividing wall of a church in an oblique direction (south-east or north-east), giving worshippers a view of the altar and therefore of the elevation of the host.]
The Fen district in its ancient state, provided scope for hermits of the type of Antony and Paul. There in the rich, wild, green pasturage, surrounded by marshes covered with water-lilies, and swarming with pike and perch, where the kingfishers dart and the wild ducks plunge, Anglo-Saxon hermit St. Guthlac of Crowland made his hermit home in the seventh century; Guthlac had a career that rose from aristocratic warrior to monastic visionary and eventually patron saint of Crowland Abbey.
He had been a warrior, but he had grown tired of slaying and sinning, and so he left his ancestral and princely home for the little green mound where he made his cell, and whereon, after fifteen years of self-abnegation, of starvation, ague, and fever had sent him to his long home, there arose the magnificent Abbey of Crowland. Over another of these fen heroes, St. Botwulf [or Botolph]of Thorney, arose another shrine, and round it gathered the town which still bears his name, Botolphston —from “Botolph’s stone” or “Botolph’s town” the market town of Boston in Lincolnshire.
But it is the mountainous North, and especially the romantic crags and dells of the borderland, that in England proved the best ground for the nature-loving hermit in his purest and holiest form. All over the North country there are dotted places which still go by the name of Armitage or Hermitage, showing plainly the nature of the quondam inhabitant. Similarly in Scotland and Ireland the prefix kil, kel, or cul, shows at once the place where once upon a time there was no habitation but the “cell” of some hermit, or a group of “cells” of the ancient British form of monastery anterior to the introduction of the Benedictine rule.
There is no history that is truer than that gained from place-names.
Here is the hermitage at St. John’s Lee, near Hexham, a gentleman’s residence, with splendid gardens, and some of the finest beeches in England, but its name shows that this was the spot whither St. John of Beverley used to retire for weeks of meditation and devotion from the busy life of the Hexham Abbey in the seventh century. From some similar cause no doubt comes the name of the Hermitage, the residence of Sir Lindsay Wood, at Chester-le-Street.
From a hermitage in Eskdale, near Whitby, Godric of Finchale (c. 1070 – †21 May 1170), a native of Walpole in Norfolk, came to Durham, during the bishopric of the Norman Ranulf Flambard (1099-†1128). Acting as verger at St. Giles’, and listening to the lessons of the children at the school of St. Mary-le-Bow, he learnt the psalter by heart, and once more sought retirement in a cell he constructed for himself on the North bank of the Wear, near the spot where the handsome ruins of Finchale now stand.
His biography “Life of St. Goderic” by Reginald of Durham, dedicated to Hugh Pudsey, reminds us very much in its extravagant demonology and miracle-working, of the lives of Paul and Antony. Again we hear of the extreme steps taken for self-discipline, but a new feature is added; night after night, even in the cold winter months, St. Godric will stand up to his neck in the icy Wear all the night through whilst reciting the Psalms, just as St. Dryhthelm of Melrose (St. Mary’s Abbey) had done in the River Tweed in Bede’s day, and as Charles Reade makes his hero do in that finest of all historical novels “The Cloister and the Hearth.”
North of Durham and Finchale, to the East of Ravensworth on the edge of Gateshead Fell, we come to the vill of Ayton Bank, respecting which there is a very interesting document in existence: the following grant of an acre of land near the brook to the hermit of Eighton, points out the site of the ancient vill:
“Heremitarium de Eighton.
“Johannes Dei gra. Dunelm. Episcopus omnibus ad quos presentes literæ pervenerint salutem. Sciatis quod de gratia nostra speciali concessimus Roberto Lamb, Hereuntæ, unam acram vasti nostri ad finem borealem villæ de Eighton juxta altam viam ducentem versus Gatesheved vidt ex parte occidentali dictæ viæ prope rivulum descendentem de fonte vocato Scotteswell pro quadam Capella et Heremitagio per ipsum ibidem in honore S. Trinitatis edificandis, habend. et tenend. eidem Roberto ad terminum vitæ suæ de elemosina nostra libere et quiete ab omni servitio seculari ad serviendum Deo ibidem et orando pro nobis et pro predecessoribus ac successoribus nostris. In cujus, &c. Dat. apud Dunelm. 20 die Maii A° Pont. sexto. Rot. Fordham, A° 6, 1387.”The History and Antiquities of the County Palatine of Durham: Volume 2, Chester Ward. Chapelry of Lamesley pp. 207-218. British History online.
The life of St. Cuthbert shows him a hermit at Dull, [Perth and Kinross] in Scotland, in his early days, and again in his declining years at Inner Farne on the rocky Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland, where the seabirds learn to love him. The miracles alleged about him and other hermits in respect to wild animals, are not hard to understand when we consider the wonderful scope they had for the practical study of Natural history, and how marvellous their knowledge would appear to the untutored visitors. But for ages the miracle-working of St. Cuthbert, and of the spirit of St. Cuthbert, was believed in by the superstitious northerners of mediaeval times, and had they not proof for ocular demonstration? When the storm subsided, throughout which the ringing of St. Cuthbert’s hammer had been heard, and they went upon his island, did they not pick up the beads which he had wrought? We know them to be simply the entrochi of Geology, but they did not, and so they called them Cuthbert’s beads, just as they called the ammonites of Yorkshire, Hilda’s petrified serpents.
Away in the bosom of the Cumbrian hills, we find St. Herbert’s Isle, in the Lake of Derwentwater, where the ruins of the little chapel still stands, built over the shrine of St. Herbert of Derwentwater, the intimate friend of St. Cuthbert. On that island St. Herbert spent his hermit life, visited occasionally by his friends (perhaps from Crosthwaite, where St. Kentigern [known as St. Mungo] had established his Cumbrian mission), who, starting from the little pine-clothed promontory on the eastern side of the lake, bequeathed to it the name of the “Friars’ Crag.” There in the scene so loved by Wordsworth, St. Herbert closed his life on the self-same day as his friend St. Cuthbert, on his rocky isle. Thus was their prayer strangely answered.
St. Cuthbert is the archetypal hermit of the sea. Others besides him have found in the sad sound of its waves and the ever-changing lights upon its surface, groundwork for passive contemplation and perpetual prayer. St. Brendan [the Navigator] found it on the bosom of the ocean, seeking the land of rest, the “Promised Land.” St. Regulus [Bishop of Patras] found it on the shores of Fife at the spot called Kilrymont, a Pictish settlement when he landed with the relics of Scotland’s patron saint St. Andrew the Apostle, and established his hermitage on the same spot where, in later years, grew the city of St. Andrews.
Coquet Isle, off Warkworth Harbour, was itself a cell of retirement, belonging to the Benedictine monks of Tynemouth.
But the mention of Warkworth brings us to the most entrancingly romantic of all the hermit stories, the pathetic tale so graphically told by Bishop Percy, in the style of the old Northumbrian Ballads.
Nowhere in the world is there a more interesting anchorage, both for its architectural design and its origin, than Warkworth Hermitage.
There lived at Bothal Castle, about the time of Edward III, a young chieftain of the name of Sir Bertram [of Bothal], whose love for Isabella heiress of the house of Widdrington was reciprocated, and moreover was approved of by the lady’s parents. But before consenting to marriage she required her suitor to prove his valour, and sent him a helmet for use against Scotland to attack Earl Douglas. In a subsequent border raid, Sir Bertram was sorely wounded, and was carried to Wark Castle by the Tweed, to be healed. His promised bride, hurrying across the Cheviot moorlands to nurse him was captured by a Scottish nobleman who had been an unsuccessful suitor for her hand, and her attendants were killed. A week later, Sir Bertram recovering, in anxiety at no tidings reaching him from the lady, goes to her home and finds that she had set out for Wark. No trace of her whereabouts being discovered, he comes to the conclusion that some mosstroopers have carried her off. Consequently, he and his brother set out in different directions under disguise to seek her. By chance, unknown to each other, they discover her prison about the same time. The brother in highland disguise is just carrying her off to safety at night when Sir Bertram in minstrel garb comes upon them and slays his brother, and the lady, discovering the mistake too late, throws herself between them and is herself slain. Henceforward the luckless victim of these sad circumstances, having been with difficulty restrained from committing suicide in his frenzy, gave himself up to the hermit life of fasting and prayer.
His friend, Earl Percy, gave to him the sequestered spot on the North bank of the Coquet, near Warkworth, where he spent his fifty remaining years in excavating in the solid freestone rock a beautiful little Gothic chapel, which still remains, in architecture of the style of Edward III’s time.
The little grotto contains three apartments, which have been named the chapel, the sacristy, and the antechapel. Outside of these by mason-work the hermit’s —or probably his successors’— dwelling-room and bed-room were built.
The chapel is still entire; the other apartments have been partly broken by the fall of rock.
The chapel is about eighteen feet long, with a width and height of about seven-and-a-half feet. At the East end, reached by two steps, is a handsome stone altar, having the upper plane edged with moulding. In the centre of the wall behind is a niche for a crucifix, with the remains of a glory. On one side of the altar is a beautiful Gothic window, which admitted light to the sacristy. On the opposite side is a cenotaph bearing the recumbent effigy of a lady. Her feet rest upon the figure of a dog, as the symbol of fidelity. Beneath is the figure of a bull’s head, the crest of the lady’s family. Kneeling at the foot of the tomb, with his head resting on his right hand, is the figure of the hermit. A door in the chapel led to an inner apartment containing an altar like that in the chapel, and a recess in the wall for the reception of a bed, whereon one of moderate size might sleep. This then was the hermit’s own sleeping apartment. Above the entrance to it is a shield, cut in the stone, and sculptured thereon are the cross, the crown, and the spear, as emblems of the Passion.
Leaving the chapel, we turn and look at the inscription, now illegible, but which once ran: — “Fuerunt mihi lacrimae meae panes die ac nocte,” and it seems like the motto not of this hermit alone but of every genuine hermit throughout Christendom; “My tears have been my meat day and night.”
Outside we find the hermit’s well, and a rock-hewn flight of steps to the left of the grotto, leading to the summit of the cliff, where he had his little garden, and whence he might gaze across the Vale of Coquet. This garden is now covered thick with oaks.
A series of hermits followed him in line, until the Reformation swept away hermitages and anchorages along with the monasteries.
The last hermit at Warkworth seems to have been Sir George Lancastre, to whom was granted by the Earl of Northumberland a patent of twenty marks a year and other privileges in consideration of his daily prayers for the Earl and his ancestors in 1532. This document is still extant.
At Knaresborough, Yorkshire, still remains an interesting example of a hermitage. It is known as St. Robert’s Chapel, and is hewn out of the rock, at the bottom of a cliff. We give pictures of the exterior and interior of the chapel. The chapel appears to have also been the hermit’s living-room. Our illustrations are from John Carter’s “The ancient architecture of England, including the orders during the British, Roman, Saxon, and Norman eras…” (1887).
The Reformation swept away almost all vestiges of the technical religious hermit from England, but it cannot kill the spirit of the hermit. Subsequently we find it exhibiting itself in very eccentric forms in our country.
In 1696 died John Bigg, the hermit of Denton. Formerly clerk to the regicide Judge Mayne, at the Restoration he retired to a cave, and lived on charity, though he never asked for anything but leather, which he kept patching on his already overladen shoes. These remarkable shoes were preserved, one in the Ashmolean Museum, and the other at Denton Hall.
In 1863 there was living near Ashby-de-la-Zouch an eccentric character who named himself “The old Hermit of Newton Burgoland.” His mania was political rather than religious. His own motto was “True hermits throughout every age have been the firm abettors of freedom,” and the actions of his life were all intended to exhibit some political, social, or religious symbolism. The garments which he wore, and the plots in which his garden were laid out, all symbolised some quaint idea. Thus one hat of helmet shape represented the idea ” Fight for the birthright of conscience, love, life, property, and national independence.” Another of his twenty symbolic hats shaped like a beehive represented the thought “The toils of industry are sweet; a wise people live at peace.” To such a weak aimless end had the hermit life decayed.
We give an illustration of the funeral of a hermit, which is one of a group in a fine picture of “St. Jerome,” by Florentine Quattrocento artist Cosimo Rosselli (1439—†1507), in the National Gallery. “It represents,” says the Reverend Edward L. Cutts, in his “Scenes and Characters of the Middle Ages,” “a number of hermits mourning over one of their brethren, while a priest, in the robes proper to his office, stands at the head of the bier and says prayers, and his deacon stands at the foot holding a processional cross. The contrast between the robes of the priest and those of the hermits is lost in the woodcut; in the original the priest’s cope and amice are coloured red, while those of the hermits are tinted with light brown.” It will be observed that he is to be interred without a coffin, which was customary amongst members of religious orders in bygone times.
Yet, since nothing dies, but only all things change, all that was great and good in the hermit spirit has but passed on into other forms, for still we find poets of nature and self-denying souls, and even the hermit form itself may phoenix-like arise again out of the ashes of the frivolity and secularism of the age as an overstrained reaction from the past, as it did of old. Who can tell?
It will not seem more strange to us than it did to the calm-souled fellow-christians of Paul and Antony, or the Roman contemporaries of Jerome and Eustochium.Continue reading “Hermits and Hermit Cells”