Between Monks: Tales of Monastic Companionship in Early Byzantium

Between Monks: Tales of Monastic Companionship in Early Byzantium

By Derek Krueger

Journal of the History of Sexuality, Volume 20, Number 1 (2011)

Introduction: 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.”

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.

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