Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

Revolution vs Monasticism

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The near simultaneous occurrences of the recent civil unrest in Egypt and the upcoming feast of St. Anthony make for a very strange combination. Revolution and monasticism: the one fanatically involved in conquering the world, the other preoccupied in conquering heaven. The one seeks to realize an earthly government; the other a heavenly government. The one would spill men’s blood to change a political scene; the other would spill its own blood to change men’s hearts. We would not expect any dealings between these completely contradictory worldviews; and yet one’s mind recalls a very unusual story that occurred in the 4th century that did see a quite rare intersection between the two.

The year was 387 AD, and a man named Theodosius was Emperor of Rome. He was a pious Christian who respected church discipline and law—who is even mentioned in one of our Coptic hymns—but was also a man of choleric temperament, whose passionate emotions were known to flare up into a rage when provoked. The imperial treasuries had been particularly strained that year due to a combination of factors; and the Emperor proposed to restore the lost funds by placing a heavy tax on the two richest cities of the East: Alexandria and Antioch. In Alexandria, large meetings were held in public places, and inflammatory and seditious speeches were made; but the Roman prefect of the city, by a shrewd mix of firmness and diplomacy, enforced payment, and peace was preserved.

In Antioch, however, events took a wholly different and disastrous course. On February 26 the edict which enjoined the tax was publicly proclaimed by a herald, and large numbers of people of all ranks gathered at the spot. A dreary silence followed the announcement of the edict; cries and wailings sporadically emerged from the crowd. At last the gathering disbanded and, after several hours, became a wild, infuriated mob of protestors. The city was thrown into a confusion; and a riotous group made its way to the governor’s residence to demand repeal of the tax. The governor escaped for his life by the back door; and the frenzied demonstrators, having broken into the building, found themselves face to face with the mounted imperial decrees. A momentary feeling of reverence for the Emperor’s decrees halted them; but a stone was thrown by a boy which hit one of the sacred decrees, and in a few minutes the mob had torn down the stone decrees, battered them to pieces, and flung the debris into the streets. Inflamed by their success, the mob proceeded to tear down other public images and statues of the imperial family and even to set fire to one of the main buildings of the city. But the governor returned with a company of soldiers; and the disorderly mob, being no match for military force, was quickly dissolved.

Every one returned to his home, the streets and square were empty, and a death-like stillness pervaded the city. Remorse and abject terror seized the inhabitants of the city as they awaited the inevitable wrath of the Emperor. Many suspects and prisoners were captured by the city’s magistrates to await the imperial judgment. The report of the violent tumult would take several weeks to reach Theodosius, which gave the people much time to meditate upon the potential horror of their coming punishment. In their anxiety the people had no where to turn to save the church; and they were extremely fortunate to have a very bold and pious presbyter at the time named John. This presbyter rose to the occasion; and in a series of beautiful homilies (which are preserved till today), he encouraged his flock to repent, to realize the vanity of worldly riches, to seek God’s guidance, and to always praise their Creator. By his calm and comforting spirit John succeeded in diverting the minds of his hearers from their present distress and to fix minds upon eternity. This John, incidentally, due to his graceful teaching and holiness of life, was later ordained archbishop of Constantinople, and given the famous epithet "Chrysostom".

But two imperial commissioners arrived during the middle of Great Fast, invested with full powers to investigate the city and to put on trial the many witnesses who were imprisoned. They were backed with a considerable military force. The people surrounded them crying for mercy; but it was necessary that they do their stern duty. There were no lawyers found now in Antioch to plead for the prisoners; they had all escaped or concealed themselves to avoid the perilous work. There were no city officials who would stand up for the poor prisoners for fear that they would be suspected as accomplices in the plot. The philosophers had also all fled in terror; those few select men—who prided themselves on their enlightenment, who grew beards and wore long robes to accentuate their wisdom, who vainly taught on the meaning of life and what made it good—now could not be found to interceded for the people.

A powerful and effective intercession came, however, from an unexpected source. As the imperial commissioners were riding through the city on the second day, they were approached by a group of strange, rough-looking beings, in course garments with unkempt hair. These were the hermits, who had descended from their solitudes in the nearby mountains—some not having been seen for years—to plead on behalf of the people. An old man emerged from the monastic band and seized the bridle of one of the commissioners and ordered him in a tone of authority to dismount. "Who is this mad fellow?" cried the commissioner. They informed them that this was Macedonius the "barley-eater", a reverend old monk admired by all the Christians of Antioch. The commissioners immediately dismounted and asked forgiveness. "My friends," replied the solitary, "go and tell the Emperor, 'You are an emperor, but also a man, and you rule over beings like yourself. Man was created in the divine image and likeness; do not mercilessly command the image of God to be destroyed, for you will provoke the Maker of the image!'" The other hermits all declared that they were prepared to die on behalf of the prisoners and suspects, and they would not withdraw until the city was pardoned. The final decision of Theodosius, after the bold intervention of the monks, Chrysostom, and Flavian bishop of Rome, was to grant the city a free and full pardon.

The story displays what a heart and mind of steel can develop in a person who is simply focused on his spiritual life. In a day when monasticism is sometimes degraded for its other-worldliness or ridiculed as a useless way of life, the hermits of Antioch exemplify in physical act what all monks do for us as a spiritual act: intercede for the world. When a person lives in such a state, constantly above the usual preoccupations, ambitions, and anxieties of life, the heart and soul must naturally develop a firmness of character foreign to the soft and fickle type of the world. Thus the rage and violence of revolution was quenched primarily by the spirituality of monks. So we may ask, who is stronger, the revolutionary or the hermit? Or what system wields greater power, rebellion or solitude? Or which weapon cuts deeper, revolt or prayer? Is revolution or monasticism, brute force or spirituality, the weightier power? We must answer that it would probably be the one that will outlast the other.

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