Desert Spirituality in an Urban Context

“One of the earliest, and clearest, examples of the attempt to apply the spiritual tropes of desert spirituality to the urban context is in an anonymous hagiographical source, written around the sixth and seventh centuries, titled Life of St. Alexis the Man of God. The origins of the legend are somewhat shrouded in mystery, but it seems it had its origins in Syria, at the height of desert monasticism’s greatest growth in the fifth and sixth centuries, making its way into the west around the tenth century.
The legend has all the stock elements of a traditional hagiography steeped in imitatio Christi: a childless couple of noble lineage (paralleling Christ’s royal lineage) who pray for a child, and their prayers are answered. The child’s father, Euphemian, wants him to inherit his power and wealth, and grooms him for such a moment when he will pass on all his worldly power and goods. He chooses a wife for the young man, but Alexis is more concerned with chastity and prayer than he is with power, wealth and marriage, so he, on the day of his marriage, talks his wife into adopting a life of chastity, after which he takes his leave of his father’s house and sails for Laodicea, and then Edessa, “because of an image he had heard talk of, made by angels at God’s command on behalf of the Virgin who brought salvation.”

It is here that the story takes on an unusual turn, because rather than join a monastery, he goes throughout the streets of Edessa, distributing his wealth to the poor, and once he has divested himself of all his possessions, simply “sits down with the poor.” He spends his time with the poor, collecting enough alms to sustain himself, and gives all else to the poor. Leading his life in such a way, he avoids monastic engagement, and at the same time, he lives out his spiritual commitment to poverty in the city of Edessa, also choosing not to live as a hermit.

Withdrawal, for Alexis, means adopting a life of poverty, a way of life that rejects the privilege, power and wealth of his upbringing. As Euphemian’s servants sail to Edessa to look for Alexis, they find him, but do not recognize him. The story drives home the new reality, where Alexis is no longer identified as a powerful heir to a powerful dynastic family, but as a simple beggar. What Euphemian’s servants find is a man who is now dependent on them. He, who was once “their lord, now is their almsman.” This, we are told, brings him great joy, since his exchange was thorough and complete: wealth and power for complete poverty.
alexis life
How did Alexis live out his poverty? The anonymous poet tells us that he lived seventeen years in Edessa, living in the steps of a church that contained a miracle-working image of the Virgin Mary, “serving his Master with ready will,” with his enemy (i.e. the devil) unable to deceive him..” Like Anthony in the desert, and for that matter, like Christ in the wilderness, Alexis has his own unspecified conflicts and fights with the devil where he comes out victorious. He “punishes his body in the service of the Lord God,” rejects “the love of man or woman,” and turns down “honors that might have been conferred on him.” His commitment to his chosen life of poverty is unwavering, not wanting to “turn aside from it, as long as he has to live.” He is content to live in the city, laboring in prayer and, presumably, ascetic discipline. The chief temptation is to return to his former life of wealth and privilege, and the sight of powerful, wealthy men he sees every day might contribute to that temptation. Nothing, however, can move him from his choice of life, nor from the city of Edessa, which has become his own arena of spiritual struggle…that is, until a rather strange series of events compel him to return to Rome.
Alexis, purposed never to leave Edessa, is prompted to leave when the image of Christ at the altar instructs the priest to bring him into the church. After bringing him into the church, word got out that the “image spoke for Alexis.” Everyone began to flock to the church to honor him as a living saint. This caused a great deal of distress for Alexis, not wanting “to be burdened again by this honor.” Wishing to stay in the anonymity that he enjoyed, he wanted to maintain this state of affairs which brought much by way of opportunities to engage in ascetic self-denial and identification with the poor of the city. This would all change, as people would want to honor him and venerate him above his fellow poor. At this point, he knows exactly what he needs to do: leave Edessa, head straight for Laodicea, from there to Tarsus, and then to Rome.

Why does Alexis choose to return to the city where he had wealth and honor in his father’s house? The anonymous author answers this by relating that since seventeen years had passed since Alexis had left Rome, he was unrecognizable to his father and kinsmen. This anonymity-lived out in his father’s household-would suit him very well, since, surrounded by his father’s wealth and power, he would have the opportunity to fight the temptation to reveal himself to his father. He requests of his father (who does not recognize him) to give him lodging under the stairs, and this request is granted to him, “for the love of God and for (his) dear son.” So he spends the next seventeen years under his father’s stairs, “in great poverty (living) his noble life…loving God more than all his lineage.” Whatever food came from the house, he would eat enough to sustain his body, and the rest he would give to the poor. He dwells in the church, and does not want to depart from it, taking communion on every feast day. His greatest desire is “to work hard in God’s service; in no way does he want to be distanced from it.”
His greatest feat, however, is his dwelling under his father’s stairs, “delighting in poverty,” and enduring humiliations from the household staff, who throw their slops on his head in order to spite him, everyone considering him to be a fool. Among the many humiliations heaped upon him are water being thrown on him, so that his bedding gets soaked. His response is quite typical of him: “This most holy man does not become angry at all, instead he prays to God, in his mercy, to forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

So far, Alexis exhibits all the traits that mark a traditional desert ascetic: he eats very little food, engages in a kind of ascetic warfare against the passions, endures privations and humiliations, to the point of near martyrdom, and most importantly, exhibits that trait that is common to all martyrs and ascetics-the imitation of Christ’s sufferings. The anonymous author makes this point very clear when he puts Christ’s words on the cross on the lips of Alexis, thus identifying him as an alter Christus. In the end, Alexis has also succeeded in becoming an urban Anthony.

The story of Alexis exemplifies the impulse to live out a life of ascetic poverty in the cities as well, inspiring many imitators who would take up the fight against the passions of greed, avarice and lust in the major urban centers of the eastern empire. One way to do this would be to establish monastic communities within an urban environment, or at least in close proximity to an urban center, thus following closely the Pachomian and Antonian models. This would be the manner in which Basil of Caesarea’s monastic establishment would function, with a standard rule regulating the way his monks would interact with the “world” (i.e. the city) as part and parcel of their ascetic discipline……

The beginning of monastic endeavor in Egypt and Syria in the fourth through the sixth centuries is very instructive because it arose in the presence of a highly urban and commercial culture, giving men and women opportunities to practice spiritual struggle and to practice ascetic withdrawal. How that withdrawal was to take place varied. For Anthony and Pachomius that struggle was to take the shape of eremitic and coenobitic paths of spiritual engagement, which can take place either in remote deserts or in urban areas. For Sts. Alexis and John the Almsgiver, it was to take the shape of an intentional urban asceticism. St. Basil makes room for both kinds of spiritual endeavor, and would be influential in passing these spiritual impulses to the Latin west. For scholars like Heffernan, these works of ascetic hagiography would ride on the heels of the martyrs movements, and bequeath an idiom of sanctity that emphasizes the saint as ascetic hero from which future hagiographers would draw as they craft their arguments for the sanctity of their subjects. All saints must conform to these models of ascetic sanctity. All saints are, to one degree or another, ascetics, and the urbanization of asceticism will cement this reality for every hagiographer making the case for his particular saint.”

See also “The “Desert” and the Latin West: Sulpicius Severus’ Life of St. Martin and St. Gregory the Great’s Dialogues”: and “To the Desert and Back Again: From St. Anthony’s Desert Flight to St. Basil’s Urban Monasticism, Part I”:
For “The Life of St. Alexis, an Old French Poem of the Eleventh Century” see and

For Venerable Alexis the Man of God see:


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