Several years ago after the Virginia Tech Massacre, I wrote an article for our parish newsletter entitled Peace-keepers of Another Kind: Monks of 4th Century Antioch. Given the recent heroic efforts of the first responders at Monday’s Boston Marathon Bombing, I was reminded of this article, and thought it might be time to resurrect its contents for publication in this blog. I hope you agree that it is as timely today as when I first ran it six years ago.
What does it take to restore peace to a city or country once overrun with violence and civil strife? This question is central in considering recent events both at home with shootings at Virginia Tech and abroad with the attempts of our military to quell sectarian violence in Iraq. A show of force by the ruling authority can help, but it is only part of the solution to what is a much greater spiritual problem, and often an excessive show of force may even make matters worse.
In fourth century Antioch, a crisis broke in the city when a group of citizens who disapproved of the Roman Emperor’s new taxes rebelled by desecrating his statue placed in the center of the city as a sign of his authority. They toppled the statue, tied it to the back of a horse, and dragged it through the city streets. In this ancient empire, any action taken against the Emperor’s image was considered a direct assault on the Emperor himself. These rebels started a riot and placed the whole city under the suspicion of the crown. Magistrates and troops were dispensed at once from Constantinople and rumors ran wild about who was to blame to the extent that all kinds of important public officials and common citizens fled for their lives to “undisclosed locations” around Antioch.
In the midst of this Hurricane Katrina-like crisis, stepped some very unlikely and unexpected heroes. St. John Chrysostom records this extraordinary 4th century miracle of peace-keeping intervention in his Homilies Concerning the Statues. It seems that while the worldly wise fled to the caves and hills around Antioch, the desert dwellers of those same caves, the monks who had fled the world for the love of God and everything in the world, entered the city and became first responders to the catastrophe. When the Emperor’s men arrived to round up and try the offenders, the monks stayed to supplicate the judges on behalf of both the innocent and the guilty. St. John writes:
When those who were sent by the Emperor erected that fearful tribunal for making inquisition into the events which had taken place, and summoned every one to give account of the deeds which they had perpetrated, and various anticipations of death pervaded the minds of all, then the monks who dwelt on the mountain-tops showed their own true philosophy. For although they had been shut up so many years in their cells, yet at no one’s entreaty, by no one’s counsel, when they beheld such a cloud overhanging the city, they left their caves and huts, and flocked together in every direction, as if they had been so many angels arriving from heaven. Then might one see the city likened to heaven, while these saints appeared everywhere; by their mere aspect consoling the mourners, and leading them to an utter disregard of the calamity.
These true lovers of mercy desired so much the salvation of all that if a judge went unpersuaded by their pleas, they would offer their own life in place of the defendant.
The crisis and prolonged presence of the monks in Antioch had many other marvelous effects on city life. Not only did they quell the present disturbance and gain clemency for the afflicted, they also began to turn the heart of the city toward prayer and virtue. Many of the sources of frivolous entertainment ceased by order of the Emperor:
…That the Emperor hath shut up the Orchestra, that he hath forbidden the Hippodrome, that he hath closed and stopped up these fountains of iniquity. May they never again be opened! From thence did the roots of wickedness shoot forth to the injury of the city! From thence sprung those who blast its character; men who sell their voices to the dancers, and who for the sake of [money] prostitute their salvation to them, turning all things upside down! Art thou distressed, O beloved for these things? Truly it were fitting that for these thou shouldest be glad, and rejoice, and express thy thanks to the Emperor, since his castigation hath proved a correction, his punishment a discipline, his wrath a means of instruction! But that the Baths are shut up? Neither is this an intolerable hardship, that those who lead a soft, effeminate, and dissolute life, should be brought back, though unwillingly, to the love of true wisdom.
The monks respond to this lack of entertainment with, “an abundance of sobriety and meekness” which causes the saint to conclude that “our city has become all at once a monastery.” St. John finishes his record with a reflection on what makes a city dignified:
When you wish to pronounce an encomium on the city, tell me not of the suburb of Daphne, nor of the height and multitude of its cypresses, nor of its fountains of waters, nor of the great population who inhabit the city, nor of the great freedom with which its market-place is frequented even to midnight, nor of the abundance of its wares! All these are things of the outward sense, and remain only as long as the present life. But if you are able to mention virtue, meekness, alms-giving, nocturnal vigils, prayers, sobriety, true wisdom of soul; commend the city for these things!
What do we make of our own city or country? How do we respond when tragedy strikes and the peace so long enjoyed is broken? It is all too easy and even natural to blame pubic officials for falling asleep at the wheel, to talk endlessly of the deleterious effects of the culture war, to criticize the crisis from a comfortable distance. But what if we behaved more like these monks who had died to the world and thus had reckless disregard for their own safety? What if we trained our souls more on the solid meat of virtue, meekness and almsgiving and less on the junk food of pop culture and entertaining distractions? How would our response then be different to the Virginia Tech Massacre or the escalating violence in Iraq?
As Orthodox Christians, we are called to be peace keepers, but not the kind that hold a comfortable distance from suffering. May we learn when we hear of the affliction of another person, another campus, another city, another country to claim it as our own, and even if we are not able to join them in person, we may identify with them noetically in the co-suffering of our prayers.
Homily XVII of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople,
Addressed to the People of Antioch, Concerning the Statues.
The Oxford Translation and notes, revised by Rev. W. R. W. Stephens, M.A., Prebendary of Chichester Cathedral, and Rector of Woolbeding, Sussex. Published in 1886 by Philip Schaff, New York: Christian Literature Publishing Co.