Inquiry into monastic life for the correction of its abuses (St. Eustathios of Thessaloniki, 12th c.)

NOTE: The following article is compiled from various books.

 Ευστάθιος Θεσσαλονίκης4

Eustathius is particularly incensed by avarice in monks. Just mention the name of a rich man, and monks immediately cluster around him with inducements to part with his money: they invite him to visit, take him to warm baths, regale him with fine food and drink. Then they add the spiritual inducements: they promise him salvation without effort. And the unfortunate man is thus deceived, caught in the trap, while the monks grow rich at his expense.

The rich are not the only sufferers. Woe betide the poor man unlucky enough to live next door to a monastery! He will be subjected to constant harassment, as the monks wait for the chance to appropriate his vineyard, his field or his house. Monks make slaves of their neighbours. Better to be attacked by barbarians than to live in close proximity to the holy fathers.

Picture a meeting of the brotherhood. Hearken to the discourse of the abbot: he speaks not of God, not of the affairs of the spirit, but of vineyards and of meadows and of rents.  He discusses which vineyard yields the best wine, which plot of land is the most fertile, which are the monastery’s best sources of income; he talks of labourers, of olive oil and of figs (that is, of the income from the sale of figs, not of the parable of the fig-tree). The monks debate how best to store bread and to sell at better prices; how best to manage the wine; how to preserve grape-pips and bran for distribution to the poor in time of famine.

Eustathius incessantly complains of the ignorance of monks. Monks sell books without knowing their real value. What skills can one expect from a virtually uneducated monk? He can loll around the streets; he knows his way in the market; he can taste the difference between good wine and bad; and he can wield a club to carry out a robbery.

In their behaviour monks are no different from anybody else: they even ride on horseback. They push in crowds, they swear in the market, they have intercourse with women. Though they normally mask the upper half of their faces, the black hood jumps smartly above eye-level as soon as its wearer notices any indecency worth observing. Monks are lazy, though they will never admit it. Monks may wear heavenly garb, but they are rooted in the earth as firmly as mandragora.

Eustathius is hardly more sympathetic to hermits than he is to monastic communities. The hermit, he says in his panegyric on St Philotheus of Opsicium, cares only about himself: he therefore seeks places of solitude, hides in caves and in holes in the ground, so as to escape the throng of the market-place. Eustathius admits that it is indeed admirable to fight the tribe of demons in solitude, where God the King is one’s only spectator and referee. But those who fight the foe in the full glare of public attention should feel no shame by comparison: their deeds surpass those of the hermit. The hermit runs along a smooth track, with no real obstacles, while the public contestants vie on a battlefield strewn with stones and spikes. The harder their struggle, the greater their honour. The sun doubtless continues to be beautiful as it passes unseen beneath the earth, but it is infinitely more brilliant when it rises and makes its beauty manifest to all.

The sceptical attitude towards monastic asceticism is even echoed in Eustathius’ commentaries on Homer. The Cyclopes who, ‘trusting in the immortal god [Homer had ‘gods’ in the plural] plant nothing and dwell in hollow caves’ (Od. xi, 107-8, 113-14) are analogous with the ‘anchorites of our own time’ (Comm. ad Horn. 1618/31), who seek to escape from cities and to dwell on lofty mountains and in caves, and who neither plant nor labour in any other way, but receive goods without sowing or ploughing. A Byzantine reader would surely be reminded of the ‘fowls of the air’ (Matth. 6:26), who ‘sow not, neither do they reap’.

This association of hermits with Cyclopes seems to explain a number of Eustathius’ etymological digressions. He gives three derivations for the word ‘ἀσκητής’: one from ‘ἀσκηθής’ (‘unscathed’); one from ‘ακεῖσθαι’ (‘to cure, make amends’); but one from ‘ἀσκός’ (‘wineskin’). Even more pointed are his remarks on the word ‘λαύρα’, denoting a group of monastic cells. After the innocent explanation that the word originally meant a narrow lane or alley {Comm. ad Horn. 1921/56), Eustathius unexpectedly comments that the compound ‘σποδησιλαύρα’ (literally a streetwalker) means a whore ‘πόρνη’, ‘χαμαιτύπη.’ Thus the pious term ‘λαύρα’ acquires distinctly unsavoury connotations. Furthermore, ‘χαμαιτύπη’ calls to mind ‘χαμαιευνάδες’ (‘sleeping on the ground’), a word which Eustathius, following Homer, regularly uses with reference to pigs. Sleeping on the ground is an eremitic virtue. Does Eustathius mean to imply that hermits are pig-like as well?

Eustathius would not like to see monasticism abolished, but it must be reformed. In particular, severe restraints must be imposed to limit monastic wealth and power. Not only should individual monks, in the cause of salvation, renounce their personal property, but the wealth of the monastery itself must be restricted. There is no justification for a small monastery to own huge estates. Unfit monks ought to be expelled. And monasteries should be deprived of their administrative autonomy: why should monks be ruled by nobody when all other people have a ruler?

Monks enjoy an unacceptable degree of independence both from bishops and from the civil authorities. They must start to show obedience to the church hierarchy; and they must be made subject to secular authority. Eustathius applauds those emperors who brought large monasteries under the control of secular archontes: thus the good monks become free to devote themselves entirely to divine pursuits, while the secular administrator deals with the day-to-day maintenance of the house. In monasteries which are unfortunate enough to be without a secular overseer, the monks have to worry about their own material well-being: instead of the Psalter their hands clasp counterfeit coins and the scales of injustice, and their fingers become trained in the deception of peasants.

Eustathius’ attitude to monasticism complements his attitude to military authority. Secular control over the monasteries, as advocated by Eustathius, would surely have suited the interests of Manuel I and his entourage.

The question of charistikia, of the granting of rights over monastic property, was not new in twelfth-century Byzantium, but few contemporary Byzantine writers supported charistikia as strongly as Eustathius.

For Eustathius charistikia provided a means to combat the corruption of monks by relieving them of secular distraction. John Oxeites believed that charistikia had precisely the opposite effect, actually introducing secular business into the monasteries. Charistikia made a travesty of the monastic ideal, as monasteries turned into private suburban estates; where charistikia flourished, monasticism perished; laymen infiltrated the monastic community, there to feast and sing; charistikia turned monks into slaves.

[SOURCE: Alexander Kazhdan & Simon Franklin, Studies on Byzantine Literature of the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries, Chapter 4: Eustathius of Thessalonica: the life and opinions of a twelfth-century Byzantine rhetor].

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Much of his diatribe against hypocrisy is directed at monastic duplicity. Underlying Eustathius’s criticism was the mutual hostility which characterised the relations between monks and their local bishop. Eustathius expostulates:

How can any monk who has been blessed in this mysterious way by them [the bishops and priests], dare to answer back that he is not subject to the presiding bishop and that the latter is less than him? Do they not realise that the Fathers of the church were distinguished by the episcopal office and held that the bishop is the father of fathers?

Eustathius wanted to know why monks so hated their bishops. His answer was that ‘they reckon that if there were no bishops, they would be everything in the world and the only people to whom churches would be subject would be to those dressed in black all over.’

From a cultural point of view his repeated appeals to the monks not to squander the treasures of the libraries are very interesting; he wrote:

Woe to me! Why will you, O dunces, liken a monastic library to your souls? As you do not possess any knowledge, you are willing to deprive the library also of its scientific means? Let it preserve its treasures. After you there will come either a man of learning or an admirer of science, and the first, by spending a certain time in the libraries, will grow more clever than he was before; the other, ashamed of his complete ignorance, will, by reading books, find that which he desires.

[SOURCE: Michael Angold, Church and Society in Byzantium Under the Comneni, 1081-1261, Chapter 8 Eustathius of Thessalonica]

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“They keep away their hands from good deeds as from a stain”: the monks of Thessalonike

In On the Improvement of Monastic Life, Eustathios dedicated longish chapters to the description of the vices of the monks painting their avarice in dark colours:

“Thus when their brotherly assembly happens, the abbot starts to speak. And the discourse is not concerned with problems of the Scripture, nor with the solution of riddles, or with explanations provided by the holy Fathers, […] but completely troublesome words. The abbot is philosophizing from which kind of grape good vine is made, which kind of land is fertile to yield as much harvest as possible, from which source more tax [can be levied] for the brothers, and which serving-brother cannot calculate being simple by nature. (170.11-15; 28-31)

Eustathios resented several points in the behaviour of the Thessalonian monks towards himself. He complained that the monks did not respect his Episcopal authority, Eustathios’ supremacy was challenged. Some of the monks denied the gestures of subordination, or performed it with anger and hypocrisy. Eustathios portrayed the abbots as slandering their bishop, being his enemies. One of the tokens of their enmity of which Eustathios inculpated them is that they struck his name from the diptychs not praying for the metropolitan during their services.

The central theme of Eustathios’ charges against the Thessalonian monks was that they were fighting for independence not willing to accept the authority of the church. This in practice meant that certain abbots did not accept Eustathios’ overseeing position over their monasteries. Some abbots when the time arrived to consecrate monks to the priesthood in their monastery, visited bishops of other dioceses asking them to perform the consecration. ‘These [abbots] deny the appointing authority (χειροτονία) of their bishop’, complained Eustathios. He felt that those abbots opposing his will in Thessalonike undermined his Episcopal position in the wider church.

According to Eustathios’ account this problem was not limited to Thessalonike.

“This emulous desire which destructed entirely the things here, or started from here and diffused as far as the very gulf of Aigina and Eleusis and the further beyond gulf around the promontory of Maleia, moreover further to the Ionian gulf this way westwards, or it accidentally spread thence to here.”

The regions given by Eustathios are quite vague: the territory near Athens, the southernmost promontory of the Peloponnese, and the region of the Adriatic Sea further south. Eusthathios’ assertion seems to testify to that the Thessalonian was not a unique problem at that time with respect to the relationship between a bishop and the monks under his authority. The antagonism between Eustathios and the monks of his diocese reach its peak during the period between 1180 and 1185.

Eustathios did not state explicitly what happened between him and the Thessalonian monks besides some scattered hints in On the Improvement of Monastic Life. It is sure that the metropolitan bishop felt himself threatened.

“Thessalonike rears such brave monks who bravely oppose the canons and laws. They despise their archbishop and no one raises a word against them. How can we stay mute as if panic-struck and not having hands and mouth? And immediately they arouse the fury of their soul—if it ever was asleep—as a ‘terrible soldier and commander’ equipped with abundance of complete armour, which they know how to obtain with their evil tricks: they set themselves into the arrays of a hoyl war. And as many abbot, and monk of great rank (μεγαλόσχημων; great-schema) are amongst them, they lie in ambush against those without guilt; whose first step needs to be awaited while putting in front the other monks. Once they have been detected lying underneath in an ambush, they leap out themselves too, stand in the first line, order the ranks and send forth the army of the monks of small rank to accomplish through them as much as they can, even if not all they want because of circumstances from God, the aid of the holy emperor.”

The conflict between Eustathios and the Thessalonian monks led to a judicial trial against the bishop. In c.188 of On the Improvement of Monastic Life, Eustathios addresses one of the opposing abbots:

“O saintly monk, if the bishop who was prosecuted and who was a defendant bears malice, you, who persecuted him without reason and hawked at him as ‘great and dark fear’, how should you be called? One who bears good will towards him?”

Eustathios’ wording clearly indicates that the anonymous Thessalonian abbot summoned him to court.

[SOURCE: Péter Tamás Bara’s Observations on Eustathios of Thessalonike’s Admonitory and Hagiographic Orations Related to the City of Thessalonike: www.etd.ceu.hu/2013/bara_peter-tamas.pdf ]

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Many authors of the age, including Prodromos, Ptochoprodromos, Tzetzes, Balsamon, Eustathios, Euthymios Malakes (bishop of New Patras and friend of Eustathios), and Niketas Choniates, polemically depicted monks and would-be holy men as morally undisciplined, as cynical exploiters of popular superstitions, and as ‘‘fraudulent, greedy, or superfluous.’’ Their invectives and calls for reform should probably not be seen as a reaction to any sudden and drastic deterioration in the standards of monastic life, though perhaps that happened to a degree (as evidenced by the rising wealth and social ambitions of individual monks and communities). In his Inquiry into monastic life for the correction of its abuses, Eustathios paints an interesting picture of monks fully assimilated to the secular and aristocratic values of society, including business ventures, horse-riding, and hunting with dogs and falcons. In his commentary on the Odyssey, he sarcastically compares the Cyclopes to the hermits of his own age who receive goods without having to work for them.

Eustathios also attacked Christian obscurantism in his Inquiry into monastic life, arguing that monks should read in all fields, beyond ecclesiastical and theological literature. As well, he was willing to allow monks to smile and even laugh from time to time, stating explicitly that ‘‘I am no friend of those who want to banish laughter altogether.’’

Eustathius pays close attention to the problems of monks and monasticism. Ideally a monk is a heavenly being, an intermediary between God and man. But reality falls far short of the ideal. Again, in his criticism of contemporary corruptions of monasticism Eustathius cuts through conventions and cliches and creates an array of individual portraits and vivid scenes of monastic life.

If, (relates Eustathius) an educated man wishes to enter a monastery, the brethren reject him instantly, hurling abuse at him like stones; but monastic gates are always wide and welcoming for the ignoramus. Thieves and robbers often tonsure themselves and pretend to be monks. And how many monks continue to dabble in the affairs of this world! They trade, grow vines, breed cattle. Such people are prepared to sacrifice only their hair, but they happily retain all other earthly encumbrances.

[SOURCE: Anthony Kaldellis, Hellenism in Byzantium: The Transformations of Greek Identity and the Reception of the Classical Tradition, Chapter 5 Eustathios of Thessalonike: scholar, bishop, humanist]

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