Tuesday 13 August 2013

Reflected glory: Imitation, biography and moral formation in early Christianity

I wrote this piece for ABC Religion & Ethics, and am re-posting it here.

While some Christian writers drew freely on ancient Roman ideas of virtue and self-care, the characteristic way early Christians reflected on the moral life was through biographical stories. It was Christianity's immense investment in the idea of incarnation – the belief that God had entered the world in human flesh – that made stories of embodied life so important for the Christian moral imagination. If God's life is definitively made available in the human flesh of Jesus, then ethical principles, universal values and the like will be relatively uninteresting compared to the actual texture of moral life as one finds it in the experience of real human beings.

Nothing is more illustrative of the whole Christian attitude towards life than this preponderance of biography in the early centuries of the faith. In the first Christian biographies, stories like the Passion of Perpetua (c. 203 CE) presented the heroic death of martyrs as moral exemplars. By the time of Pontius' Passion and Life of Cyprian (259 CE), the martyr's whole conduct and way of life had also become material for study and imitation. As well as holding up Cyprian's courageous death as an example to be followed, Pontius praises the entire person of Cyprian as a sort of moral text to be read and assimilated. Cyprian's personal habits, his manner of dress, even his facial expressions are material for contemplation: "So much sanctity and grace shone from his face that he confounded the minds of those who looked upon him. His countenance was grave and joyful, neither a gloomy severity nor excessive affability" (Passion and Life, 6). The reader of the biography is meant to see Cyprian; and moral transformation occurs as this seeing ripens into imitation.

In the fourth century, once Christians could no longer be martyred, biographers turned their attention to a new kind of exemplary life: the “holy man” who achieves self-martyrdom through heroic feats of asceticism. The first and greatest biography of this variety was Athanasius' Life of Antony, written in Egypt around 356 CE. By now the moral dimensions of biography have been expanded to include even the most seemingly insignificant details about the saint's daily life – diet, dress, moods, sleeping habits, manner of speech, and so forth – culminating in a meticulous account of his death. Though Antony's death is admittedly not the death of a martyr, it is nonetheless performed by Antony as something "worthy of imitation" (Life of Antony, 89).

And in the Life of Antony we again find our biographer paying particular attention to his subject's face. The saint's face is a centre of moral and spiritual gravity. It is especially important that the face be contemplated, studied, assimilated into one's own moral and imaginative world. Here is how Athanasius describes the face of Antony: 
"His face, too, had a great and indescribable charm in it. And he had this added gift from the Saviour: if he was present in a gathering of monks and someone who had no previous acquaintance with him wished to see him, as soon as he arrived he would pass over the others and run to Antony as if drawn by his eyes. It was not his stature or figure that made him stand out from the rest, but his settled character and the purity of his soul…. The joy in his soul expressed itself in the cheerfulness of his face, and from the body's behaviour one saw and knew the state of his soul, as scripture says: 'When the heart is glad, the face is radiant'" (Life of Antony, 67). 
 The tradition of Christian iconography – the visual representation of the faces of saints as objects of veneration – has its foundations here, in what might be called a tacit theology of the face. At any rate, in the moral environment of early Christianity, the sanctified face had a peculiar moral power and a peculiar capacity to produce moral responses in others. Athanasius reports that troubled pilgrims would go away healed and helped after merely having laid eyes on Antony.

The impetus towards imitation among early Christians is nowhere more touchingly attested than in a speech delivered by Gregory of Nazianzus at the funeral of his friend Basil of Caesarea in 379 CE. Basil's saintliness was legendary in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) and beyond. He had given away his family fortune to help the poor. He distributed food during times of famine. He worked to reform prostitutes and criminals. He founded monastic communities. He created what his contemporaries regarded as one of the wonders of the world: the Basiliad, a "new city" outside the city, a vast and complex community of care and support for the poor, the sick, the dying, the aged, the orphaned, and the outcast. As Gregory says in his funeral speech, "Others had their cooks and rich tables and enchanting refinements of cuisine, and elegant carriages, and soft flowing garments. Basil had his sick" (Oration 43, 63). In Greek culture down to this day, it is not Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus who brings the children their presents, but Saint Basil.

But such was the people's love for this good man that Gregory, in his funeral speech, takes a few moments to castigate what he regards as an unseemly degree of Basil-imitation among the populace of Caesarea: 
 "So great were the virtue and the surpassing reputation of this man that many of his minor traits and even his physical defects have been affected by others as means of gaining esteem. I mention, by way of example, his pallor, his beard, his manner of walking, his pensive and, in general, introspective hesitation in speaking, which, in the badly conceived imitation of many, degenerated into melancholy. Then there were his style of dress, the shape of his bed, and his manner of eating, none of which were to him deserving of attention…. So you might see many Basils as far as external appearance goes…. The incidental things in Basil's life were far more precious and notable than the serious efforts of others" (Oration, 77).
"So you might see many Basils": Gregory's report sounds uncannily like our own celebrity culture, where the hairstyle or brand of sunglasses or tone of voice of our film-star saints sets in motion wave after wave of stylised imitation. Western culture today remains, for good or ill, a culture of imitation. It remains a culture of saints. All that's missing is the virtue of the saints whose lives we imitate. It is, after all, not the clothing someone wears that makes them worthy of imitation, but the virtue – that nobility of spirit, that spark of godlike excellence – which has become enfleshed in them.

At the end of his farewell to Basil, Gregory raises the question whether in sketching the outlines of Basil's life he has provided "a common model of virtue for all time, a salutary example for all the churches and all souls, upon which we may look as on a living law and thus regulate our lives" (Oration, 80). But he concludes that such direct and deliberate imitation is less important than the simple act of seeing Basil, of becoming witnesses to the quality of redeemed life that was visible in him. The task is not primarily to mimic external behaviours, but to look intently into the face of the saint, to contemplate the spiritual life that has become available there: "eyes fixed on him," Gregory says, "as though he were seeing you, and you him, that you may be perfected by the Spirit".

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