Saints Friday: Monks and Martyrs

There are not really any good saint feast days coming up within the next week.  I know there is St. Valentine’s day, but there is almost no information available about St. Valentine.  So instead of trying to write a lot of fluff or talking about how St. Valentine’s Day became a thing I am going to share part of a paper I wrote some time ago.  It is about the similarities between martyrs and monastics.  This section is about their similar ministry roles, specifically the title of “Pillars of the Church.”  But next week I will have a saint to tell you about.  So for now enjoy this little bit of information about the saints.

Martyrs and monks shared similar ministries in the church, so much so that monks were considered the successors of the martyrs.  Some similarities are their role: they were spiritual warriors, advisors/spiritual directors, wonder workers, they forgave sin, and had the title pillars of the church.  However, martyrs and monks did have some differences in their roles.  Such as the martyrs were witnesses for the church, the monks prayed for the church, the monks were usually more ascetical, the martyrs were put on display and were more public figures, whereas the martyrs fled from the cities and from the public eye to be alone.  These are the main ministries of the martyrs and monk; each area will be explored further and more in-depth in the rest of the paper.

Monks and martyrs not only shared in ministry to the church, but also had the same title in the church, “pillar.”  This might sound like a strange or unimportant title to modern ears but in the ancient world, it held a significant place in the culture.  To fully understand this one must remember the ancient world was filled with pillars; they held up structures, were used to decorate buildings, and some were quite awe inspiring.  St. Paul says, “James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars,” in 2:9 of his Letter to the Galatians.  Using the term for respected leaders and foundation of the church, and it is no surprise two of these “pillars” would go on to martyrdom.  St. Clement of Rome went on to say of the martyrs Sts. Peter and Paul “through envy and jealousy the greatest and most righteous pillars were persecuted and engaged in contest unto death.”[1]  It does not seem Clement is praising Peter and Paul as “pillars” just because they were apostles of the church or because they started/founded many churches, but because of their martyrdom for the church.  The term pillar does not stop there; for example, Dr. Lois Gandt in a paper read at the 2010 North American Patristics Society annual meeting showed, “in the Acts of Peter, the bishop of Alexandria who was martyred during the Diocletian persecution is identified as ‘the first pontiff and pillar of this see.’”[2]

Evagrius of Antioch in his translation of Athansius’ work The Life of St. Antony from Greek to Latin did go so far as to identify Antony as a “pillar.”  There are several reasons Evagrius might have done this, most have to do with Antony’s willingness to be a martyr for Christ.  Gandt identifies some reasons; Evagrius might have had for doing so, such as Antony’s willingness to die for Christ.[3]  He was the ascetical suffering of Antony and other desert monks, as similar to the martyrs suffering.[4]  The term also gives Antony and other monastics a type of authority, which the martyrs also had.[5]  The title “pillar of the church” is important, it suggests the person or group is a support structure for the church.  This idea will continue to be developed in the rest of the paper, but here it is important to say, the church stands on the powerful prayers of her pillars, those who are willing to give up their lives to pray for the church, both in the monastery and in heaven.

[1] Clement of Rome, Epistle to the Corinthians, Chp 5.  Trans by Bettenson, Henry. The Early Christian Fathers: A selection of the writings of the Fathers from St Clement of Rome to St Athanasius. (New York: Oxford, 1956), 38.

[2] Lois Gandt, “A Pillar of the Church:” Evagrius of Antioch’s Portrayal of Abba Antony.”  Presented at North American Patristics Society May 28, 2010. 7.

[3] Ibid. 7-8.

[4] Cf. Ibid. 8.

[5] Ibid. 12.


About Jesse

I am a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary with a Masters of Arts in Theology focusing on Church History. I am a Third Order Benedictine monk, in the Company of Jesus. I am married to a wonderful woman, we just had a baby Michaela Rose. You can follow me and be alerted of new blog post by following me on Twitter @jtalexanderiv. Or following this blog.
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