Of the several paths that lead to virtue, the broadest and the most promising is the way of imitation. By observing the lives of holy men and women and imitating their deeds we become virtuous. Before we can become doers we first must be spectators. Origen, the fecund Christian teacher from ancient Alexandria, said, Genuine transformation of life comes from reading the ancient Scriptures, learning who the just men and women were and imitating them. He shrewdly notes the reverse of this lesson: we can also grow in virtue by learning who were reproved and guarding against falling under the same censure.
In a scene in The Brothers Karamazov shortly before Father Zossima’s death, the aged monk gathers his fellow monks and friends in his cell for a final conversation. He recalls that as a child he owned a book with beautiful pictures entitled A Hundred and Four Stories from the Old and New Testaments. From this book he learned to read, and as an old man he has retained it on his shelf. Fr. Zossima remembers its many stories of good and holy men and women, stories of Job and Esther and Jonah, the parables of Jesus, the conversion of Saul, and lives of the saints Alexei and Mary of Egypt, stories that planted a tiny mysterious seed in his heart. Some of these sacred tales, like the story of Job, he could not read without tears. Like a bright spark amidst darkness, or a seed that never dies, they lodged indelibly in his memory. In these stories of God’s people, says Fr. Zossima, he beheld God’s glory. What is Christ’s word, he asks, without an example?
Without examples, without imitation, there can be no human life or civilization, no art or culture, no virtue or holiness. The elementary activities of fashioning a clay pot or constructing a cabinet, learning to speak or sculpting a statue, have their beginning in the imitation of what others do. This truth is as old as humankind, but in the West it was the Greeks who helped us understand its place in the moral life. And in classical antiquity it is nowhere displayed with greater art than in Plutarch’s Lives.
Our senses, writes Plutarch, apprehend the things they encounter simply because of the impact they make upon us. For this reason the sense must receive everything that presents itself whether it be useful or useless. The mind, however, has the power to turn itself away if it wishes, and readily fasten on what seems best. It is proper, then, that it pursue what is best, so that it may not only behold it but also be nourished by beholding it . . . . Our spiritual vision must be applied to such objects that by their charm invite it to attain its proper good.
Such objects, continues Plutarch, are to be found in virtuous deeds; for these implant in those who search them out a zeal and yearning that leads to imitation. In other cases, admiration of the deed does not at once lead to an impulse to do it. Indeed, in many cases the contrary is true. We take delight in what is produced, but have no desire to imitate the one who produced it. We may take pleasure in, for example, the product of a carpenter or factory worker without wanting to be like them. Their actions generate no ardor in the breast to imitate their labor, nor any buoyancy in the soul that arouses zealous impulses to do likewise. But virtue (arete) disposes a person so that as soon as one admires the works of virtue one strives to emulate those who performed them. The good things of fortune we love to possess and enjoy, those of virtues we love to perform . . . . The good creates a stir of activity towards itself and implants at once in the spectator an impulse toward action.
In writing the lives of noble Greeks and Romans, Plutarch gave literary form to ideas and conceptions that reached back into Greek antiquity and that continued to exercise their spell over moralists in the early empire. The idea of acquiring virtue by imitating noble examples was a simple yet profound truth, acknowledged by all, even those who chose another vehicle for moral formation. Plutarch’s contemporary Seneca, a Stoic philosopher (Plutarch was an eclectic Platonist), wrote letters and moral essays. In one of many letters to Lucilius, a youth he hoped to mold, Seneca wrote: Plato, Aristotle, and the whole throng of sages . . . derived more benefit from the character than from the words of Socrates. The way is long if one follows precepts, but short and accommodating if one imitates examples.
Long before Plutarch and Seneca, Aristotle had shown that, the pursuit of virtue was indissolubly bound to deeds, that good actions are not simply the end toward which one strives, but the means to reach the goal. It is only through the repeated performance of good deeds that a virtuous life is possible. In Aristotle’s famous formulation: We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts. From this conception it was only a short step to the idea that character could be deduced from actions; hence a narrative (selective, to be sure) of a person’s actions (i.e., a life, bios in Greek) was an appropriate instrument for engendering virtue. The philosophical grounding for the writing of lives rested on this intimate bond between deeds (praxeis) and character (ethos). And, as Plutarch recognized, deeds need not mean great and noble displays of bravery or courage. A slight thing, like a phrase or a jest, he wrote, often revealed more of character than battles where thousands fall. For character had to do with constancy and steadiness.
By the time Christianity made its appearance in the Roman Empire, the practice of writing lives was well established. Yet Christian hagiography, if we wish to use the later term, does not emerge until the end of the third century and does not burst into luxurious bloom until the fifth. There are of course tales of heroic men and women in the apocryphal acts of the apostles (as well as in the canonical Acts), and the early acts of the martyrs narrate the deeds of a martyr’s final hours or days. And most important of all, there was the life par excellence, the life of Jesus, displayed with subtlety of perception and refinement of feeling in the gospels.
The initial impression one receives from early Christian literature, however, is that the preferred vehicle of moral instruction was the precept. In the earliest Christian writing (1 Thessalonians, for example), Paul says: You know what precepts we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from unchastity; that each one of you know how to take a wife for himself . . . that no man transgress and wrong his brother in this matter . . . . Sprinkled throughout the New Testament are other lists of precepts, some simple imperatives to refrain from anger, wrath, malice, slander, foul talk (Colossians 3:8), others graceful and polished aphorisms constructed on the model of the book of Proverbs or the Wisdom of Sirach”Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger . . . . If anyone thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain (James 1:19, 26).
Often the precepts stand alone, but in places they are buttressed by examples: Job as an example of steadfastness (James 5:11), Abraham the model of faith (Hebrews 11:8), Elijah as evidence of the power of the prayer of the righteous (James 5:17). In the gospels, Jesus conscripts living persons as examples: a certain poor widow who offered a farthing, little children, Mary of Bethany, the centurion whose slave was at the point of death; and, of course, he tells stories and parables, sometimes ending with the words: Go thou and do likewise (Luke 10:37). From the beginning, the idea of imitation informed Christian moral discourse. Paul entreated the Corinthians to take himself as an example: I urge you, then, be imitators of me (1 Cor. 4:16). Long before the advent of Christianity, the principle was endorsed by Jews, in, for example, the roll call of heroes in the section let us now praise famous men in the Wisdom of Sirach. In Christianity, the book of Hebrews unfolds a roster of men and women of faith in chapter eleven”Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Rahab, Gideon”and 1 Clement produces another list.
Examples, however, are not lives. In the case of the biblical heroes, holy men and women tended to function more as types, i.e., instances of particular virtues, rather than as comprehensive models. In Ambrose’s classical work on Christian ethics, de officiis, Abraham illustrated prudence, Susanna modesty, David courage. Job patience. Stripped of the grainy texture of place and time, the saints of the distant past became pallid and lackluster, mobilized too often for too many different purposes. As graphic as their deeds might once have been, repeated appeal to the same figures divested them of the very features that had made them noteworthy, severing the emotional bond between doer and spectator.
Why, then, no lives? The most obvious reason was that the gospels stood in the way. The supreme model for Christian life was Jesus. I have given you an example that you also should do as I have done (John 13:15). Even those whose exploits would have been fit subjects for a life, most notably Peter and Paul (an idea the author of Acts no doubt contemplated, and in part executed), looked to Jesus. Be imitators of me, wrote Paul, as I am of Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). Others followed in this wake. Ignatius of Antioch exhorted the Philadelphians to imitate Jesus Christ as he imitated the Father. Jesus’ call to discipleship, Follow me (Mark 1:16), was an imperative to model one’s life on his, as Clement of Alexandria put it at the end of the second century. Our tutor Jesus exemplifies the true life and trains the one who is in Christ . . . . He gives commands and embodies the commands that we might be able to accomplish them.
The very existence of the gospels served as a deterrent to the writing of lives of other holy persons. In them was to he found the noblest example of all. At this early stage of Christian history, it would have been presumptuous to bring other persons into competition with the primal model. Only after Nicaea (325 A.D. ) did the need arise for other exemplars. It should be remembered that the most potent arrows in the quiver of the Arians were those passages in the gospels that spoke of Jesus’ human features, his limited knowledge, his obedience to God, his growth in wisdom, his suffering. Once it was declared that the Logos was of one substance with the Father (a doctrine defended chiefly by appeal to the Gospel of John), a vacuum was created that could be filled with other human faces.
Whatever the historical explanation for the rise of Christian hagiography, there can be no question that by the early fourth century Christians began to discover within their midst the human and spiritual resources to embark on a new strategy for teaching virtue. The first intimations of a new way are visible in the relations forged between master and disciple within the Christian community in the second and third centuries. In the ancient world, moral education was private and individual, based on a master-disciple relation that was nurtured through bonds of friendship, respect, and admiration. As Peter Brown has noted, No student ever went, as we do, to a university conceived of as an impersonal institution of learning . . . . He would always have gone to a person”to Libanius, to Origen, to Proclus. When Gregory the wonderworker came to Caesarea to study with Origen, he wanted, in his words, to have fellowship with this man, and through him to be transformed. By establishing an intimate personal bond with Gregory, Origen awakened in him the desire for a new life. The cement of this union was love, and Gregory says that it was only when he was smitten by Origen’s love that he was persuaded to give up those objects that stood in the way of practicing the virtuous life. What goaded the disciple to change was not exhortation but deeds. He exhorted us by his actions and incited us more by what he did than by what he said.
Gregory did not write a life of Origen, but his appreciation of Origen provides a bridge to the first Christian lives. About the same time that Gregory wrote his essay, Pontus, a disciple of Cyprian, composed what may be considered the first Christian saint’s life. His Passio et Vita Cypriani, written shortly after Cyprian’s death as a martyr (ca. 259 A.D), was the work of a man who had served as deacon under the great bishop and knew him well. A more conventional disciple would have written Cyprian’s final days in the style of other acts of the martyrs, a popular literary genre among Christians in North Africa and elsewhere. Here was a proven form to celebrate the deeds of a holy person in bright and colorful detail. Pontus, however, consciously breaks with this tradition. Cyprian, he says, had much to teach, independently of his martyrdom; what he did while he lived should not be hidden from the world. His purpose in writing the Vita, he says, was to hold up the lofty pattern (documentum) that was displayed in the actions and accomplishments of Cyprian’s entire life, not only his courage at the time of his martyrdom. These deeds, too, were worthy of preservation in eternal memory.
Although Pontus eschewed the convention of depicting only the final feats of his hero, in one significant respect he stands within the earlier tradition: he wrote about someone he knew at first hand, not about a hero from the distant past. His life told of a man he loved and admired and who had shaped his own character and life. The Vita Cypriani summons forth the memories of those who had known Cyprian for years, those who had lived and worked with him, as well as those who had been spectators of his final testimony, his martyrdom.
To a certain extent, Pontus’ Vita was premature. It would be a hundred years before Athanasius would write the Life of Antony. The Vita Cypriani, however, locates a path for us between Christian ethical teaching in the second and third centuries and the works of the fourth and fifth centuries, the great age of Christian hagiography. It foreshadows a development that would alter the face of Christian literature and piety. For with the publication and rapid dissemination of the Life of Antony, a new era begins. Even a partial list of the many works that appeared during the next three hundred years testifies to the vitality and breadth of this tradition in the generations after the Life of Antony: Life of Pachomius, Palladius’ Life of John Chrysostom, Gerontius’ Life of Melania (first full life of a woman ascetic), John Rufus’ Life of Peter the Iberian, Theodoret of Cyrus’ Religious History, Cyril of Scythopolis’ lives of Palestinian monks, Sulpicius Severus’ Life of Martin of Tours, the Lives of the Eastern Saints written by John of Ephesus.
Now these works are many and varied. Some are written in an elegant and refined style, self-consciously contraposing Christian saints to the heroes of Greek and Latin antiquity; others are homespun and unaffected tales, ignorant or disdainful of the conventions of the literary culture. Some works dwell on the eccentric and grotesque, telling of men who sat for years on pillars or who dwelled in huts too narrow to stretch out in; some read like romances and adventure stories; some depict fierce inner struggles; others describe unexceptional acts of mercy or almsgiving. Some are frankly apologetic, using the life of the saint to defend a particular theological position (for example, the christological formulas of Chalcedon).
With few exceptions, two features characterize these lives. First, they hold up imitation as the path to virtue. In the Life of Antony, Athanasius writes: Simply by seeing Antony’s conduct, many desired to become imitators. Or Theodoret of Cyrus, in the preface to his Religious History (of the holy men and women of Syria): I am writing down these lives so that others may imitate them. The proper subject of the lives was deeds not sayings (though they include sayings), i.e., actions that could be emulated or at least admired and venerated. In a letter placed at the beginning of his Lausiac History, Palladius wrote: Words and syllables do not constitute teaching . . . . Teaching consists of virtuous acts of conduct . . . . This is how Jesus taught . . . . He did not use fine language . . . he required the formation of character. As to be expected in works that focus on actions, the lives prize seeing over hearing. The saints were living icons. A constant refrain is that the author writes of what he has seen with his own eyes.
It was only by seeing that one could take the measure of a person’s character and remember what one learned; only thus have the saint’s character imprinted on one’s mind and soul. As John of Lycopolis wrote, We have come to you from Jerusalem for the good of our souls, so that what we have heard with our ears we might perceive with our eyes”for the ears are naturally less reliable than the eyes”and because very often forgetfulness follows what we heard, whereas the memory of what we have seen is not easily erased but remains imprinted on our minds like a picture. As Plutarch recognized, it was sight, visual images formed in the imagination, that had the power to excite in people the desire for emulation.
Second, the subjects of the lives were men and women the authors knew or about whom reliable information was available from people who had known them. I write, says Theodoret, about the glorious saints of our own time and the recent past. The lives bear the hues and colors of the communities which produced them. Theodoret calls one of the saints from Cyrus the fruit of Cyrus. The protagonists in the lives are not figures from the past, heroes sanitized by tradition, but gnarly contemporaries. The lives were written as a hedge against forgetfulness of what had taken place in one’s midst and in one’s own time. Nor are these tales of kings and generals; seldom do they even depict clergy. Most of the heroes are laymen and laywomen. Indeed, one of the stock temptations for the saints is the lure of ordination, an enticement the best always resist. The lives are stories of simple and unassuming men and women who loved God more ardently and served God more zealously than their neighbors and friends. For all their virtues, these were the kinds of persons present in every Christian community.
Of course, the lives include stereotypical scenes” the wounded lion befriended by the gentle monk, the master gathering his disciples in anticipation of his death”and the portraits are often highly idealized. Yet the fabric of these works bears the imprint of the unique personality of the subject more than the marks of traditional literary conventions or the author’s conception of what constitutes a virtuous life. The hagiographers do not offer a laundry list of virtues. The individual life, like the living master, generated its own criterion for evaluation. The hagiographers write about the actual accomplishments of living men and women, about deeds that are remembered and admired and evoked to display the saint’s unique character, not to illustrate or exemplify a virtue or set of virtues. They fill the space left vacant by the departure of the master.
Once the deeds of virtuous men and women were set within the framework of a life, in contrast to disembodied examples, the possibilities for moral instruction became more subtle and varied. For one thing, the hagiographer could exploit the passage of time. No one becomes virtuous in a few weeks or months; holiness is only learned gradually, over a long period of time. True virtue requires years, decades, of guidance, discipline, prayer, and acts of charity When Sabas, the architect of Palestinian monasticism, came to Euthymius in the desert east of Jerusalem he had already excelled in virtue in his homeland Cappadocia; yet when he asked Euthymius if he could become his disciple, Euthymius said that he was too young (he was eighteen) to adopt the solitary life. Euthymius put him under the care of another monk Theoctistus, to lead him in the first steps of monastic discipline. Serving first as muleteer, Sabas gradually took on whatever other tasks were required. Only after twelve years, when Sabas had reached the age of thirty, was he given permission to live alone, and then on the condition that he return each week on Saturday and Sunday to the main house. Eventually, he was allowed to become a genuine solitary, but it was not until he was forty-five years old that he was entrusted with the direction of other monks.
As noted, spiritual progress is measured not in weeks or months, but in years, even in decades. Twenty, thirty, even forty years is not an uncommon term of preparation. St. Antony lived by himself for twenty years, not venturing out and only occasionally being seen by anyone. Only at the end of this time, when his soul had achieved utter equilibrium, was he ready to accept disciples. Dwelling on the passage of time highlights the value of constancy or steadfastness, in Aristotle’s vocabulary, stability (bebaiotes). Acting in accord with virtue, wrote Aristotle, must occupy a lifetime. For one swallow does not make spring nor does one fine day summer.
Instead of a single deed, there are repeated deeds. Apollonius, a businessman who renounced the world to live in the Nitrian desert, devoted his life to the task of providing medicine and groceries for the ill. He could be seen making his round of the monasteries from early morn to the ninth hour, going in door after door to find out if anyone was sick. He used to bring grapes and pomegranates, eggs and cakes such as the sick fancy . . . . This way of life, reports the hagiographer, be practiced faithfully and without interruption for twenty years.
Not content with appeals to stock examples, the lives make place for the unpredictable and novel. This may involve nothing more than the playful addition of stray detail to the narrative. Thus it is noted of Theodore of Sykeon (who spent most of his time in a cage suspended over the face of a cliff) that he was so swift a runner that on several occasions be outran horses in races as long as three miles. But more often the unexpected is purposeful, designed both to show that the hero is free of the comfortable expectations of society and to enlarge the moral horizon of the reader.
Thus the story in Theodoret’s Religious History of the desert monk Marcianos, visited by an older monk, Avitos, who lived in another part of the desert. Shortly after Avitos’ arrival, Marcianos invites him to share dinner. Come, my dear friend, let us have fellowship together at the table. But Avitos declines, saying, I don’t think I have ever eaten before evening. I often pass two or three days in succession without taking anything. To which, Marcianos, the younger, replies (not without irony), On my account change your custom today for my body is weak and I am not able to wait until evening. Still Avitos refuses, and Marcianos is disconsolate: I am disheartened and my soul is stung because you have expended much effort to come and look at a true ascetic; but instead you are disappointed and behold a tavern keeper and profligate instead of an ascetic. Finally Avitos relents and Marcianos happily concludes, My dear friend. We both share the same existence and embrace the same way of life, we prefer work to rest, fasting to nourishment, and it is only in the evening that we eat, but we know that love is a much more precious possession than fasting. For the one is the work of divine law, the other of our own power. And it is proper to consider the divine law much more precious than our own. Theodoret says of this story that it shows Marcianos’ understanding that there is a time for fasting and a time for Christian fellowship. Marcianos knows how to distinguish the different when to give preference to something else because of the circumstances.
In his Life of Euthymius, Cyril of Scythopolis records another story with an unexpected ending. Euthymius was a recluse, and his entire life was marked by a quest for complete solitude (hesychia). Yet no matter how deep in the desert be withdrew, people followed him. His life is a story of constant flight to different parts of the Judean desert, even to the top of Masada. His was a stern and uncompromising asceticism, whose chief marks were obedience, fasting, mastery of the passions, solitude. Yet when Euthymius, the great solitary, was about to die, those were not the things he spoke of to his disciples.
My beloved brothers, I go the way of my fathers. If you love me, keep these commandments. Hold fast through everything to sincere love which is the beginning and end of all doing of good and the bond of perfection. Just as it is not possible to eat bread without salt, so it is impossible to practice virtue without love. All virtue is established through love and humility by experience and time and grace. Humility, however, exalts . . . since the one who bumbles himself will be exalted . . . . Love is greater than humility.
It is striking that the great ascetic and solitary should at his death speak only of communal virtues, of the bonds of fellowship, of mutual love.
The lives, then, do not present a single ideal of virtue, nor do they offer one paradigm of holiness. They recognize and recommend different ways of pursuing the goal of perfection, focusing less on traditional virtues than on the unique qualities of a particular person. By displaying how a single person can respond to new and varied situations, they implicitly suggest that there is no single standard, no one catalogue of virtues, no one way to serve God.
A story in the Lausiac History makes the point. It tells of the two sons of a Spanish merchant. When their father died, they divided the estate, consisting of five thousand coins, clothes, and slaves, and deliberated as to how they should deal with this wealth. Neither wanted to be a merchant. Each wanted to live a holy life, but they disagreed as to what form that should take. So they went their separate ways. Paesius gave everything he had to churches, monasteries, and prisons, learned a trade to provide for his own needs, and devoted himself to a solitary life of prayer. Isaias kept the wealth, built a monastery, took in some brothers, and welcomed the poor, setting three or four tables on Saturday and Sunday. When they died, a dispute arose as to who bad chosen the better way. Some claimed Paesius excelled because be had hearkened to the command in the gospel to sell all you have and follow Jesus (Luke 18:22); others said that Isaias was the greater because he had served others. But Pambo, a wise old monk, declared that both are equal, and he told of a dream in which he saw both of them standing in paradise in the presence of God.
Theodoret makes a similar point in his story of Maesymas, a Syriac-speaking peasant with no education. At first, he pursued the solitary life in the desert, but later he came to live in a village. Unlike the other ascetic stars in Theodoret’s collection of lives, Maesymas did not sit on a pillar, he did not live in the open air, be did not weigh down his body with chains. He simply gave himself to the needs of his fellow villagers: His doors were always open to passers by. Like the widow of Zarephath who fed Elijah, says Theodoret, his jar of grain and pitcher of oil were always full. Recognizing that Maesymas did not conform to the conventional picture of the ascetic godly man, Theodoret explained that one could learn from him that those who choose to live virtuously are harmed not at all by life in towns and villages; for this man and those like him responsible for the service of God have shown that it is possible even for those who go about among many to attain the very summit of the virtues. This was a striking conclusion in an age where the solitary life was considered the zenith of sanctity.
Theodoret may, in fact, have felt that his praise of Maesymas was excessive, because be follows his life with the tale of one of the true ascetics, Acepsimas. Shutting himself up in a cell, he remained there for sixty years without being seen and without speaking. He received food”lentils soaked in water”by stretching his band through a small hole in the wall of the cell. To prevent himself from being exposed to those who wished to see him, the hole was not dug straight through the thickness of the wall, but obliquely, being made in the shape of a curve. So holy was Acepsimus considered to be that when he died, a number of different people tried to seize his body and carry it off to their own villages.
The variations in the lives of the saints suggests that holy people do not conform to a predetermined pattern. The point in common is that the saint, like a plant that bends and twists to receive the sun, follows the course of God, always turning to the light that is the source of life.
Not only do the lives offer the unexpected, saints who do not always conform to stock virtues or conventional patterns, they also put a new figure on the stage, the holy woman. There had always been female models”Sarah, Naomi, Judith, Rahab, Mary, Felicity, Perpetua”but as Christian hagiography matured, more and more women became the subjects of lives and their exploits took on new visibility and significance for Christian piety. As has often been observed, the early Christian monastic movement offered women a way to step free of inherited roles and expectations, and the hagiographers seized the opportunity to tell their stories, many of them as spellbinding as those of their male counterparts. Melania, for example, was a more extreme ascetic than many men. She wished to fast even on Easter, and she slept in sackcloth in a box she had constructed in which she could neither stretch out nor turn over.
What becomes apparent at once in reading the lives of holy women is that they do not cultivate feminine virtues. Sylvania, for example, was erudite and fond of literature (a kind of patron saint for female seminarians); day and night she read the ancient Christian commentators, three million lines of Origen and two and a half million lines of Gregory, Basil, and others. But her reading did not entice her from virtue. She was liberated from knowledge falsely so called and was able to mount on wings . . . and by good hopes she transformed herself into a spiritual bird and so made the journey to Christ. Another woman, Susan, contended with demons. Once she was visited by a blessed man, great and God-loving, who lived in the desert nearby. Each observed the other in combat with demons. Susan, however, was stronger than he. She not only conquered the demons, she had no fear of them. She became firm like adamant and unmovable”so much that the demons would cry out at her, This is a woman, but she is stone, and instead of flesh she is iron!’
So remarkable were the feats of women that the hagiographers criticized the popular view that women’s capacity for virtue was inferior to that of men. As Palladius said in the Lausiac History: I must commemorate the courageous women to whom God granted struggles equal to those of men so that no one could plead as an excuse that women are too weak to practice virtue successfully. I have seen a good many of them. Theodoret of Cyrus echoed the idea. Virtue cannot be separated into male and female . . . . For the difference is one of bodies not of souls. As St. Paul says, in Christ Jesus . . . there is neither male nor female.’ . . . Women too may be models of the virtuous life.
Some hagiographers allow the reader, however infrequently and fleetingly, to glimpse their hero’s shortcomings. The saints are not perfect; they are made, not born. They are impulsive, they backslide, they fall into temptations, they are petty and prideful! they lack self-discipline. John Moschus in Pratrum Spirituale tells of Conun, a monk in the Jordan valley charged with the responsibility of baptizing. He found himself embarrassed by stirrings of the flesh whenever he had to baptize women, and he finally decided to leave the monastery. But St. John (the Baptizer) appeared to him and said, Be patient, I will deliver you from that struggle. But the problems recurred when a beautiful Persian maiden came to be baptized. Conun could not baptize her. He went off by himself for prayer, and again John appeared to him. Return, he said, to your monastery and I will deliver you from the struggle. This time Conun replied, Listen here, I’m not going back. You’ve often made promises to me and not kept them! St. John then threw him to the ground, pulled up his habit, marked his stomach with three crosses, and told him to take courage and go ahead with the baptism. So Conun returned to the monastery, baptized the maiden, anointed her with oil, and, his hagiographer adds, his body did not move.
The lives, then, do much more than provide a model to imitate. They arouse, judge, inspire, challenge, surprise, amuse, disturb, and excite the reader. The hagiographers do not simply set down a minimalist standard for all to imitate. Indeed, many of the specific things they portray are beyond imitation, at least for ordinary mortals. They point beyond the familiar and prosaic to a higher and more noble vision of the Christian life. One of the most cited biblical texts is Philippians 3:13: I forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead. What lay ahead, however, could not be individually specified; the goal was not the same for all. The lives of the saints, in Karl Jasper’s words, serve more as beacons by which to gain an orientation than as models to imitate. Not everyone can or will pursue the same path. The criteria for judging virtue and holiness vary.
The lives of the saints do not present us with a new theory of virtue, but a new way of teaching, a new strategy that builds on the tradition of examples, but enriches it by unfolding a pattern of holiness over the course of a lifetime. Precepts are now put in the mouths of familiar persons, and examples are enhanced by seeing them as deeds of specific individuals. The hagiographers, for the first time in Christian history, turn to living persons, or those who have recently died, as models of the virtuous life. There is great boldness here, to choose people from one’s midst, to bold up to view peasants and farmers and jugglers and sailors, presenting them as models for their neighbors, fellow citizens, and friends. By displaying men and women from their own time, and often from their own communities, these lives proclaim that holiness is possible, virtue is attainable, perfection is within your grasp. They teach, in Bergson’s phrase, a morality of aspiration, not of obligation. By placing before our eyes deeds that provoke, excite, and charm, they set us on a sure path toward holiness.
Robert L. Wilken is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia.