- Between Monks: Tales of Monastic Companionship in Early Byzantium
See, what is better and more beautiful than when brothers dwell together?—Psalm 133:1 [LXX 132:1]
The Latin version of John Moschos’s Spiritual Meadow preserves a story narrated to John and his companion Sophronios by Abba Stephen the Cappadocian while they visited Mount Sinai. Stephen was in church on the Thursday of Holy Week, the feast of the Lord’s Supper, when in his words “as the holy sacrifice was being offered and all the fathers were present, I looked and saw two anchorites enter the church. They were naked, yet none of the other fathers perceived that they were naked except me.” After communion, as the two monastic brothers left the church, Stephen followed them and begged them to take him with them. They refused, saying, “It is not possible for you to be with us; stay here; this is the place for you.” The men offered prayer on his behalf, and then in Stephen’s words, “before my eyes, they went onto the water of the Red Sea on foot and departed across the sea.”1 [End Page 28]
This strange narrative inhabits a liminal space between the erotic and its sublimation, between ascetic chastity and monastic desire. Its fantasy of naked monks, utterly unashamed of their nakedness, reveals the perfection of their ascetic practice. Naked, they receive the Eucharist; naked, their bodies are joined to Christ’s at the Last Supper. That they can walk on the water of the Red Sea confirms their conformity to Christ, and like the Israelites fleeing Egypt, they pass over into redemption. They have recovered the natural state in which God intended humanity to remain, as Antony had when he emerged from the fortress in Athanasios’s account, perhaps the best known of early monastic biographies.2 As their nakedness also indicates, the brothers have attained the presexual purity of the Garden of Eden. They are like Adam and his companion Eve before the fall into corruption, and yet they are also significantly different, for they are a pair of men.
The vision of these two naked men is framed by Stephen’s gaze, as he saw them, and he alone saw them naked. His ability to see their undressed bodies is an ambiguous charism. He was worthy to see them, while the others were not. And yet his clarity of vision exposes his desire. This brother—who no doubt prayed daily not to be led into temptation and to be delivered from evil—wanted to go with these naked men, to make it a threesome. The brothers denied him. Was it because he was unworthy of this next step? He was perfected enough to see them but not enough to join them. Was it because monks should come in twos, and three is a crowd? Or was it because Stephen continued to desire, while the naked men of his vision transcended the homoerotic desire that they represented? Each of these possibilities remains in play, for within the Spiritual Meadow the story is told to another monastic pair, to Moschos and his friend, Sophronios, two clothed monks who were also traveling together and sharing the monastic life. [End Page 29]
John Moschos completed the Spiritual Meadow shortly before his death in Rome in 619 (or perhaps 634).3 He was a particularly mobile, even gyratory monk. Moschos had entered the cenobitic Monastery of Saint Theodosios in the Judean desert at some point in the 560s before moving a few kilometers away to spend ten years in the remoter Paran Monastery. It was probably here that he met the younger and better-educated Sophronios the Sophist, a man of higher social status who in 634 would become the patriarch of Jerusalem. In his own writings, Sophronios referred to Moschos as his “spiritual father and teacher,” while in the Spiritual Meadow Moschos termed Sophronios variously “my companion Sophronios” (οɛ̔ταῖρός μου; 111, compare 113), “brother Sophronios” (ἀδɛλφός; 92, compare 102, 135), and occasionally “Lord” or “my Lord Sophronios” (κύρις or κύριος; 69, 77, 110). In his preface he addressed his “sacred and faithful child Sophronios [ἱɛρὸν καὶ πιστὸν τɛ́κνον ∑ωφρόνιɛ].” As Henry Chadwick observes, Moschos “was evidently responsible for...