Members of the covenant
The members of the covenant were an important part of early Syriac Christianity. Before the advent of monasticism proper (which developed in the desert of Egypt), most Syriac churches would consist of a community focused around the members of the covenant: men and women who had committed themselves to sexual abstinence and the service of the church. This name is the English translation of the Syriac bnay qyāmâ (ܒܢܝ ܩܝܡܐ), literally sons of the covenant. A male member of the covenant was called bar qyāmâ (ܒܪ ܩܝܡܐ), or son of the covenant; a female member was bat qyāmâ (ܒܪܬ ܩܝܡܐ), or daughter of the covenant.
While this became the prevailing concept of how ascetics lived in the Western Roman Empire, in Persia things developed with a slightly altered perspective. With only a few exceptions, Syrian monks learned to live among the people, both Christian and non-Christian, living the strict ascetic lifestyle while still maintaining full cohesion in the world about them. These eastern ascetics saw their spiritually-disciplined life as a journey of steps, adopting the notion that all were equal in God’s eyes, each finding him or herself on a stairway of godliness that led ultimately towards eternity with God.
The Members of the Covenant hold a different, yet wholesome view of spirituality – one that consists of a journey of steps toward God. Looking at both Egyptian and Syrian ascetics, I will compare the cultures, disciplines and philosophies of both groups based on their literature and evidences I have come across. Next I will look closely at a specific group of Syrian ascetics who intentionally stayed among the larger Christian community; the Sons and Daughters of the Covenant. With them I will consider their lifestyle and the community that surrounded them as a base for making specific judgments about ascetic Syriac Christians. Afterward, I will review the Liber Graduum text and its usage in the Christian community it served. This insight will include a summary of the tenets, demographics, and lifestyles of the steps in the Liber Graduum, as well as give some ideas as to why this community eventually declined.
The value of an integrated Christian community is vital to its continuance, perspective, and strength. This integration of course includes a number of variables, including age, gender, race, and under the lenses of this paper, spiritual maturity. Without preference to time or culture, a healthy view of the Christian life is one that views it in terms of a path that leads towards the One who created all life. Living with the goal of godliness at the end of one’s path encourages a steady transformation into the image of Christ. This however, is not enough. To keep from becoming irrelevant and ultimately extinct in the community, each Christian must hold with equal regard those at different stages of the journey, and remain committed to them by giving other believers chances to grow. This is exactly how Syriac Christians viewed communal spiritual development. Because Syriac Ascetics saw spiritual formation as a community on a journey, they were successful in avoiding isolation and irrelevance – remaining instead a spiritually effective presence in the church and the lost world around them.
Asceticism in the Egyptian and Persian cultures seemed to have more differences in doctrine and practice than what they shared together. The late third century shows two distinct groups pursuing celibacy, poverty and homelessness all for the sake of freeing their lives from the troubles of this world. However, the major dividing principle between the two groups was their leader in the movement. Egyptians saw their figurehead as Anthony the Great, the founding father of Egyptian monasticism and cultivator of what dominant Egyptian monasticism had come to stand for by that time. Syrian monks on the other hand, based their purpose and practice on apostolic precedent; and more accurately, the life and teachings of Christ and his disciples. While this may seem presumptuous, it truly created a fundamental difference in the goals and direction of Syrian monks that sent them on a path toward meaningful interaction with the world that surrounded them.
Up until the late third century, both groups of Christians felt the pressures of their surrounding social and political world. The Egyptians, like the Persians, were marginalized and persecuted for their faith, but only until an emperor by the name of Constantine arrived on the scene. His conversion and Christian presence on the throne in Rome was felt dramatically throughout the Roman Empire. While many were excited about the influx of believers following Constantine’s example, many others saw the mainstreaming of Sunday congregations as a negative influence on what Christ had actually called them to. They needed a higher call to discipleship, and certainly before the fourth century, there was the creation of the Egyptian monk.
Conversely, Syriac Christianity never found itself in the mainstream of acceptability in its surrounding society. Because of this, “wanderers of third-century Syria introduce[d] a motive for practicing Christian asceticism that is different from anything we have found preserved in Egyptian desert tradition.” From its very beginning, Syriac Christianity was intrinsically an ascetical faith built on its reactions and adoptions from Marcionism, and Manichaeism among other cultural heresies which promoted the Christian faith as radical dedication and sacrifice; something monastic living the world over was centered around. Thus, the Syriac Christians heard Jesus’ words of “whoever wants to save his life will lose it,” as a challenge to seek a drastic way of living which measures up to Jesus’ call for discipleship.
So what real difference did Christ as head of the monastic movement in Persia create? It was found in the Syrians’ refusal to flea from a culture in which they felt called to serve and transform. Unlike Egyptian monks who felt the need to escape the pressures of Roman rule in order to form Christ-like lives in an isolated desert, the marginalized Syriac ascetics remained enmeshed in the church and lost culture that surrounded them.
These monks of Persia did not view their ascetic lifestyle as radically unobtainable for the average Christian filling the pews on Sundays, (as opposed to many of the Egyptian monks of their day who saw their newly converted brothers and sisters as nominal at best), and they remained a prominent part of the local congregations in their town or village. Instead of an unimaginable leap of faith separated by monastic discipline and judgment, Syriac ascetics encouraged a faith-building understanding of discipleship that viewed the Christian faith as a journey; one in which we all find ourselves. Because of this, the monks of Persia felt a sense of duty to come alongside those they could mentor and guide to the next step in their faith, hoping to see those on earlier steps to grow as well.
The overwhelming presence of Western monasticism was not totally foreign to the minds of Syrian Christians seeking the paths for ascetic life. Theodoret of Cyrrhus gives historians a beautiful rendition of the early individualistic tendencies in the monks of Syria in his book about their history. Notable examples of extreme asceticism were the Persian “boskoi” monks who lived in the wild, and were often mistaken for strange animals. Wrapped in goatskins or straw mats, they avoided all forms of artificial clothing or shelter and only ate what they were given or they found already growing on the ground. Needless to say, this was an extreme form of an individualistic faith that led many well-intentioned Persian monks to the tops of pillars for forty years and others to wearing their heads raw from beating it against the ground.
The regions of the Persian Empire stretched far and wide, creating great distances between Christian groups that were developing and expressing themselves in radically different ways. “…we do know that it was extremely complex in its diversity – so much so that it is impossible to make assessments with regard to Christian orthodoxy from that period.” Because there was no overarching rule governing the civilization of Christianity, (much like one might find in the neighboring Roman Empire), Christians were more free to slip around the dogmas of the Catholics and develop widely different understanding of living the Christian life. For example, in contrast to the staunch individualistic faith seen in the rural wildernesses around them, Christians in the Persian urban areas were more intent on creating a community of believers by creating and transforming it through Christian discipleship. “From the earliest times asceticism played an integral and affirming role in the communities and the faith of Syrian Christians…discipleship to Christ, lived out by laymen and women through varying degrees…constituted the highest expression of Christian life.” Communal monasticism became more and more common during the early part of the fourth century, leaving behind the influences of the Egyptian ascetic paradigm.
During this crucial fourth century and beyond, the notions of individualistic faith changed and developed into the image of Christians as “strangers”. Syriac Christians that began seeing themselves as “strangers” to the world did not mean they were isolated and removed from it, but rather they “assume[d] a special responsibility for it and power within it, drawn precisely from the status of ‘stranger’.” Monks of this lineage acted as a missionary to his own community, a “teacher of children, healer, arbitrator…” They were missionally-minded, building a life around hospitality to others, serving the poor, and standing up for cases of social justice. “For them, following Christ meant active engagement, as Christ’s representatives, with the ‘world’ they had renounced, rather than permanent social withdrawal.”
It is out of this context that the “Sons and Daughters of the Covenant” (Benai and Benat Qeiama) were born. Truly, this understanding of living the Christian life was already ingrained in the minds and hearts of Syriac believers from the earliest days. “We must be reminded that the first Christian impulses in the lands of the Euphrates and Tigris did not come from Hellenistic Christianity via Antioch but from Palestinian Jewish Christianity…these archaic conditions, which understood the qeiama as the whole congregation of celibates who alone were admitted to baptism and sacramental life, were tenacious and were able to last for generations.” Living the life of celibacy and ascetic dedication to their Lord; the church thrived.
During this time however, historical records of the church in Syria indicate that a major shift took place, and it began to initiate the Roman concepts of church into their practice. This led to dividing grounds between the benai and benat qeiama against the married and vocational members who were also active participants in the world’s society around them. It was at this moment that a crucial split could have taken place. There was opportunity for these two groups to separate, both willing to follow God with all of their hearts, but both understanding what it means to follow Jesus as radically different and conflicting. However, through reconciliation and the grace of God, they merged and adopted a syncretism of belief; understanding their spiritual growth as steps.
From the beginning of the fourth century, the Sons and Daughters of the Covenant saw their mission as deeply interwoven with the congregational church. No longer were Syriac Christians living the Christian life for themselves, it now operationally took “a church to raise a Christian.” The members of the qeiama understood themselves to be what we might think of today as deacons. They usually lived together or with their family members, but there are instances of the benat qeiama (daughters of the covenant) to have convents and other communal organizations with which they could live and study God’s Word together. Each of them took the vow of chastity in becoming a member of the covenant, and through this vow they saw themselves vehemently as the “brides of Christ”. They surrounded this practice with layers of strict doctrine that did not allow them to be out after dark or for the benat to live with a man, lest they fall into temptation. They even had a judicial law that sent a dysfunctional covenanter to a secluded monastery, and renaming them bart qeiama denoting their failure to live up to the life-covenant to which they were called.
Functionally in the congregation, these qeiama were students and servants of the clergy. This meant that there were certain rules against a Son or Daughter from becoming a hireling or staff for a farmer, or any other vocation – they were to be completely devoted to the works and ministries of the church. It is certain that members of the qeiama were directly involved with the worship service itself, “In Edessa the qeiama of women had a part in the liturgy, reciting the hymns composed by Ephrem.” Outside of the worship service, the benai and benat qeiama were set to the task of serving and blessing others in the congregation, as well as those not connected to a place of Christian faith.
For example, a hospital was built from the efforts of one congregation’s Covenant Group, and the structure of administering the hospital sheds light on how the roles and responsibilities of each member of the congregation was dispensed. “Active believers and energetic deacons were appointed to direct the work, but for the actual service, Rabbula employed the benai qeiama.” Roles are mirrored for the women’s hospital built nearby. Charities for lepers in their village, shelters for the poor and destitute, as well as other institutions of Christian love kept the hands and feet of the qeiama busy as they met the needs of a hurting world. These “monks” (if they can truly be called as such) were anything but removed from those who needed their love the most, making their presence a powerful and effective one in the surrounding community.
In their dedication to helping the poor to see God’s love they became the centerpiece of the Christian community. One ancient source remarking on the necessity of the Covenant children boldly states, “the churches and monasteries will be constituted (or will have their existence) through them.” The very purposes the church sought to fulfill were exemplified in these Sons and Daughters of the Covenant, thus creating a standard for all other members of the church, both clergy and lay, to strive towards.
While there was much good in the services of the Sons and Daughters of the Covenant, there had yet to develop in Syriac asceticism an institutional framework for spiritual development that would progress a Christian in his journey with God and man. Enter the Liber Graduum. A series of what might be called sermons or devotionals, the Liber Graduum or “Book of Steps” creates a concrete path for Christians to walk from the earliest steps of faith to the boldest leaps of evangelistic asceticism. This was all done in the context of community; there were no “Lone-Rangers” of the faith as is seen in Coptic spirituality. The audiences of the Liber Graduum, as well as those associated with other important works not developed here (such as Letters to Virgins), built a world for themselves that supported such reliance upon each other and corporate understanding that to truly understand Syriac Christianity in Late Antiquity we must examine their texts.
“The Liber Graduum portrays a prime example of a community that summoned Christians to a higher view, but still viewed this life, body and Church as a part of God’s world.” The Liber Graduum for early Syriac Christians was not just a commentary on Scripture that was kept on a dusty shelf in a library. The eclectic mēmrā or what might be translated “sermons” seem to indicate a wide variety of situations that a community faced compiled over many years.
Michael Kmosko was the first to translate and comment on the Liber Graduum in 1926, categorizing it with its contemporary Messalian heresy that was striking the Persian Church at its time of writing. A later commenter Daniel Caner described the Liber Graduum as a threat in the eyes of the common Christian public of its day, inciting rebellion against the institutional Church found all over the Roman Empire. Finally however, David Lane does a concise and well-balanced overview of the Liber Graduum.
Lane suggests that the author of the mēmrā in the Book of Steps was trying to wrestle (as was his community) with Jesus’ different calls of discipleship to different people. To some Jesus would ask only that they believe in Him, and they would be healed; to others Jesus demanded nothing short of their total renunciation of property and family before they could follow in His footsteps. To Lane, the Liber Graduum builds for its community a tension between these commands, bridging them into a sort of staircase; ascending in the levels of the Christian life.
The anonymous author of the Liber Graduum points out six profiles of the Christian life, and claims that each Christian must evaluate where they are, and where others are around them, and work as a community to struggle up the staircase towards holiness. But what did these steps look like? How did they function in the midst of community? By looking closely at these Christian-life profiles and descriptions, we begin to see the values and needs of the Syriac Christians emerge.
By far, the author spends the majority of his efforts focusing and developing the top two steps, the “Upright” and the “Perfect”. The first nine mēmrā focus on the Perfect and the ways in which all other forms of spiritual living compare, yet are inferior to it. The Upright are called to fulfill the minor commandments in Scripture and the Perfect are to follow the major commands. According to the author’s view of salvation, God does not hold the same requirements for each person in living out the life he has called them to live. An example of such a distinction is made in Mēmrā Fourteen, “The Upright discern good people from evil ones and are moved with compassion upon the latter; the Perfect consider [others] as better than themselves.” The Upright were those who strove with everything they were to be radical followers of Jesus. The Perfect however, having given up all their possessions, and worldly relationships, (even family and wife in some instances ), were not only striving to be followers, they were seen as angels on Earth. These profiles are not necessarily a job description for those on the step, but a caricature of what the author is looking for and what he sees Jesus calling them to.
The next two groups he quickly sketches are the Sick and the Children. The Children, simply put, are infants in the faith. They are new to the experience of following Jesus and therefore little is expected of their spiritual dedication. In fact, the most significant command for the Children is that, in their fledgling commitment to Christ, they must stay away from negative influences (such as pagan friends, etc.) that might pull them back into the world they are trying to escape from. The Sick harm, judge, and condemn their neighbors, instead of forgiving them as an Upright or a Perfect one would do.
While there is little difference between the Upright and the Perfect, and the Disciples of Faith and the Disciples of Love respectively, the author sees a clear distinction. Without much more than a brief reference here and there, the Liber Graduum places the Disciples of Faith and the Disciples of Love in between the Upright and Perfect, as sort of bridge points for those on the track to becoming “Perfect”. Instead of leaving Christians alone in their spiritual walks toward righteous living, these six silhouettes of faith in the Syriac Church enabled Christians to dream of where their journey of faith might be calling them next.
Just as with any black and white text that is designed to facilitate the lifestyles of a colorful and changing community, so the brothers and sisters living under the guidance of the Liber Graduum became increasingly confused and conflicted as to how they were to live with each other on different steps. Pastoral reactions to conflict and spite fill much of the pages of the Liber Graduum, working over a period of what could be years to smooth out the finer lines of relationship between those on differing steps.
There was internal conflict which was mostly frustration toward the Perfect. The author bereaves the elevated status of the Perfect, likening them unto “perfect” examples of the human race, one in which all humans can look to and model after. However, since they were merely to “love everyone” and yet had given up the majority of their relationships, many saw the Perfect as totally hypocritical and useless in bettering the community. Everyone had something against them, the poor thought the Perfect as wealthy and comfortable, the starving thought all the Perfect did was recline and eat the best foods.
Beyond this concern, certain familial and religious conflict within the community began its downward spiral into oblivion. Families were concerned with children on the path to becoming one of the Perfect or Upright, and many non-Christian family members were harassing the “Children” of the Faith and causing the Children to recede. The author warns his audience, passionately reminding them of the persecution Jesus foretold on those who followed His ways.
The fact that the author of the Liber Graduum sees his church as collapsing morally and spiritually is a key to understanding the reason and purpose behind the book. In Mēmrā Twenty-Nine, he admonishes his community for their slack behavior and spiritual laziness. He mourns the former days when the community was more dedicated to the principles outlined in earlier sermons. “We teach these others, but we do not teach ourselves…we talk about these [predecessors], but do not act like them.” It is possible that those Perfect and Upright were beginning to relax in their dedication to holy living, pursuing instead a more dualistic understanding of the world. This understanding helped them feel above the need for prayer or compassion, with influences coming possibly from the current Messalian heresy that held similar views. As the community loses focus on the “journey” image and function of the Christian life, they move further into decline. Instead of hearing the author’s message as “steps toward godliness” it is possible that those in the community felt they were more a part of a caste system in which was impossible to progress.
The value of an integrated spiritual community was obvious to the author of the Liber Graduum. His dream to house the deepest ascetics and newborns in the faith under the same congregational roof was a powerful one. As a pastor of the community, he could never come alongside every single member and nudge them towards righteousness in God; just as with all things in Syriac Christianity of that time, it had to be a communal effort. Building a tightly-knit spiritual group of people that depended on each other led to mentorship among those on the “steps” that could not have happened in more individualistic settings. With the author’s dream realized, all members could potentially teach and be taught by other members of the group, forming and equipping skills necessary for the Christian life for that time. This was a beautiful dream, and a fascinating reality.
Cherishing spiritually integrated communities is something that does not change through the ages. Now, possibly more than ever, we are challenged to build authentic relationships with other believers, teaching and equipping them to take the next step in their faith. This faith of course does not leave us in the closets where we learned it, but emboldens us to walk out onto the streets, being the same powerfully Christian presence that we see in the Sons and Daughters of the Covenant and Liber Graduum communities so many years before us.
Syriac Ascetics made a powerful impact in the world because they lived their life in integrated communities, and understood the Christian life as a journey of steps toward godliness. Throughout this paper, we have considered the specific differences of the Egyptian and Syriac models of asceticism, highlighting the positive influences an integrated community that is missionally-minded can have on the lost world around them. Turning then to the Sons and Daughters of the Covenant, we saw a relationally driven lifestyle which was connected to the overall church body and yet held with dignity the covenants of monastic faith these Christians felt called to. The community under the Liber Graduum shows us how process and growth can happen in an intentional and structured way. In this paper, we investigated one group’s framework for living this spiritual process out in the midst of the entire congregation.
We are on a journey towards becoming again the perfect imago dei (image of God). Christ became just like us so that we could become more like his Father. Realizing that this task is a lifelong journey that bleeds over mysteriously into the afterlife is something that all Christians are challenged to consider. This world is not our home, and taking advice from the Liber Graduum, we can never reach “perfection” until we have made it back into our Father’s arms. While this is true, we have certainly been called to follow everyday closer to Jesus, our Master. Living as a participant with Jesus on the journey back home is a powerful testimony to a lost world searching for direction.
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