“Witness to Holiness: Abba Daniel of Sectis

Tim Vivian “Witness to Holiness: Abba Daniel of Sectis. Translations of the Greek, Coptic, Ethiopic, Syriac, Armenian, Latin, Old Church Slavonic, and Arabic Accounts” [Cistercian Studies (Book 219), 2008]
“This volume continues Tim Vivian’s impressive work in making important texts of the Coptic ascetic tradition available in English translation. In this case, the subject is Daniel, a sixth-century monk and hegoumenos of Scetis, around whom numerous edifying stories arose, apparently first in Greek as a collection of unconnected episodes (paterikon). These eventually led to the development of lives of Daniel in both Coptic and Ethiopic. Various stories and collections centered on Daniel survive as well in Syriac, Armenian, Latin, Old Church Slavonic, and Arabic. Vivian has drawn all of this material together in a single volume, translated into English by an impressive list of scholars. The book offers easy entrée to the anecdotes associated with Daniel and an opportunity to explore their development in the various language traditions that preserved them.
The volume includes a detailed general introduction, brief introductions to each language’s texts, extensive notes, primary and secondary source bibliographies, and an index. The introduction acquaints the reader with the complexity of the sources, including, for example, the question of whether all of the stories refer to the same Daniel, the debate over their historicity, and their edifying function in the ascetic search for holiness. Although Vivian characteristically expresses more optimism than some as to their historical value, his treatment of the question offers nuance and insight.
The stories themselves present intriguing examples of ascetics striving in unique ways toward holiness. They include Mark, who seeks to atone for his sexual drive by acting the part of a fool; a nun who pretends to be drunk, finding penance in the ill treatment she receives from her sisters; Anastasia, a patrician woman, who escapes court life by concealing herself as a male ascetic in Scetis; and Eulogius, a stonemason whose chance discovery of wealth as a result of Daniel’s prayer leads to his fall from grace. The historicity of the figures involved has in point of fact little impact on the significance of the collection as evidence for the understanding of piety and holiness in the era of its composition. Questions of penance, wealth, status, and the relationship between outer appearance and inner holiness abound, fostering awareness in the reader and working thereby as a spiritual guide in the quest for holiness.
The texts likewise supply a wealth of evidence on the social structure of monastic life and the struggles that occur therein. One reads, for example, of hermits, lavras, and coenobitic communities. One learns of monks in towns and villages, of an ascetic living with his married son, of a hermit who steals from a cenobium, of monastic jails, of barbarian attacks, of debates over bathing and nakedness, and of fighting among monks. Society, it would seem, followed the ascetics into their chosen “desert.” The Daniel dossier offers as well insight into the development of traditions. One senses the move from the original collection of unconnected anecdotes in the Greek to the constructed lives of Daniel that appear in the Coptic and Ethiopic tradition. The latter alone incorporate anti-Chalcedonian elements, witness to their participation in the totalizing discourse that arose in the Coptic and Ethiopian churches in the sixth century designed to define them over against Byzantium.
There is much of interest in these stories, and Vivian has done a service in bringing the texts from the various traditions into a single volume. Although scholars will want to consult original languages and critical editions, in so far as they exist, the diversity of languages involved makes the access offered here valuable indeed.”
From: “The Catholic Historical Review” Volume 96, Number 2, April 2010 pp. 319-321

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