Thursday, September 22, 2016


An Extravagant Horror of Feminine Society

Owen Chadwick (1916-2015), John Cassian: A Study in Primitive Monasticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1950), p. 54:
The ascetic movement as a whole suffered from an extravagant horror of feminine society, illustrated by the ascetic cry 'Approach a fiery furnace rather than a young woman!'4 Cassian did not escape this monomania.5 But a sojourn of several years in the cities of Constantinople and Rome had perhaps restored to him a certain balance, for we owe to him a diverting tale of justice. Walking in the desert, Abbot Paul met a woman and turned to run for home as though she were a dragon. This retreat being judged over-prudent by the Almighty, Paul was punished by an attack of paralysis which could not be treated by male hands, and forced his transfer to a convent where thoroughly feminine virgins nursed him until he died.6

4 Nilus, De Octo Spir. 5.
5 Coll. XIX.16.5. Cf. the story of Paphnutius in Coll. XV.10.
6 Coll. VII.26.
John Cassian, The Conferences. Translated and Annotated by Boniface Ramsey (New York: Newman Press, 1997), pp. 265-266 (7.26.3-5):
3. Here, then, Abba Paul had made such progress in purity of heart in the stillness and silence of the desert that he did not even permit himself to look at a woman's clothing, much less on a woman's face. For when a woman from nearby chanced to meet him on his way to the cell of a certain elder, along with Abba Archebius who was from the same desert, he, distressed at encountering her, ran back to his own monastery in greater haste than a person would use to flee from a lion or an immense dragon, forgoing the duty of the pious visit that he had set out upon. The situation was such that he was not even prevailed upon by the shouts and pleas of the aforesaid Abba Archebius, who was calling him back so that they might stay on the road that they had started out on in order to ask the elder what they had planned.

4. Although this was done with zeal for chastity and ardor for purity, nonetheless because it was not done according to knowledge and because the observance of discipline and the measure of appropriate strictness were excessive (for he believed that not merely familiarity with women, which really is harmful, but even the very form of that sex was to be abominated) he immediately suffered such a seizure that his whole body was paralyzed and none of its members could perform any of their functions. For not only his feet and hands but even the mechanism of his tongue, by which speech is formed, were affected, and his very ears lost their sense of hearing. The result was that nothing remained of his humanity apart from an immobile and senseless shape.

5. To such a state was he reduced that men's care was in no way sufficient to minister to his sickness, and only womanly attention was of use to him. For when he was brought to a cenobium of holy virgins, food and drink, which he was unable even to beckon for, was produced for him with feminine graciousness, all his needs of nature were satisfied, and this same care was at his disposal for nearly four years—that is, until the end of his life.
Id., pp. 280-281 (note on 7.26.3):
Flight from women is spoken of in Inst. 11.18, where the famous advice is offered: "A monk must always flee from women and bishops." Such a sentiment is a commonplace in ascetical literature. Cf. Ps.-Clement, 4.2 de virg., passim; Evagrius, Prac. 96; Apophthegmata patrum, de abbate Marco 3; ibid., de abbate Poemene 76; ibid., de abbate Sisoe 3; Hist monach. in Aegypto 1.4ff., 1.36; Regnault 71, N459; John Moschus, Pratum spirituale 88 (the story of a monk's grave that rejects a female corpse), 217. 7.26.4ff. represents a criticism of the exaggerations that often accompanied this flight, as does Verba seniorum 4.62: "A monk met some handmaidens of God on a certain road. Upon seeing them he left the path. But their superior said: 'If you were a perfect monk, you would not have looked at us in such a way as to know that we were women.'" For a study that seeks to show a more accepting attitude toward women in ancient monasticism cf. Louis Leloir, "La femme et les Pères du désert," Collectanea Cisterciensia 39 (1977): 149-159. On the possibility of heterosexual friendships within the context of monasticism cf. Rosemary Rader, Breaking Boundaries: Male/Female Friendship in Early Christian Communities (New York, 1983), 72-85.

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