The Monastic Paradox

“There is a paradox within the monastic ideal: on the one hand, monks are meant to withdraw from the world into spiritual and ascetic seclusion; on the other hand, scripture enjoins hospitality on all Christians, to emulate the model of Abraham at Mamre – “for in this way some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2). This paradox becomes especially pronounced in the course of the fourth and fifth centuries AD, as monastic communities become custodians of the increasingly popular pilgrim shrines in the Holy Land and elsewhere in the Near East. Some practitioners took this paradox to extremes, such as the stylite saints, who maintained a highly visible seclusion while at the same dispensing advice and blessings to large numbers of visitors. Historical texts, such as saints’ lives or pilgrim accounts, describe the tensions that arise from the paradox. Below I explore the scriptural and pious models for hospitality and charity, and the resulting conflict between monastic seclusion and pilgrim hospitality as described in the sources. I will also look at issues such as different levels of access to public and private space, differentiation between monastic and lay guests, and differentiation by gender….

John of Ephesus recognizes that there are these two aspects to monasticism and being a devout holy man: hospitality and seclusion. Thus we can see that the paradox was already acknowledged in antiquity. The texts themselves of course cannot be treated as unbiased historical sources. They are supposed to enhance the reputation of the saint by emphasizing his humility, piety, self-abnegation. They often become quite convoluted in the pursuit of this behaviour. According to this logic, breaking away from fasting to entertain a guest is regarded as a penance rather than a relief. It further enhances the subject’s piety and willingness to endure suffering (in this case subjugating his desire [to fast] to obedience [the obligation to provide hospitality]). One monk is persuaded to give up total isolation by the argument that isolation is a form of self-love: “for the divine law prescribes loving one’s neighbor as oneself… admitting many to a share of one’s wealth is characteristic of the virtue of charity.” (Theodoret, Hist. Rel. IV.4) Humility could further contribute to the paradoxical behaviour, in the case also described in John of Ephesus’ accounts, of a holy man who on account of his humility, did not want to accept the lavish hospitality which the abbot felt morally obligated to bestow on him (John of Ephesus, Lives of the Eastern Saints, Ch. XVII)….

John Ephesus

The conflict between hospitality and monastic seclusion was one that was recognized by ancient authors. However, it is possible that the conflict is highlighted, especially in the Syrian tradition, to emphasize the virtues of the saint. In practice, this conflict was alleviated by the designation of different spaces for people from outside the community, such as hostels, church courtyards and porticos, etc. Differentiation of space also leads to social differentiation in levels of access. The highest level of access was granted to fellow monastics or clergy, then to those with high social status. Based on this hierarchy, non-elite lay women would be expected to have the lowest level of access. Nonetheless they appear frequently as petitioners of saints despite this supposed disadvantage, so it seems not to have been a deterrent.”

From: Marlena Whiting (University of Amsterdam)

“The Monastic Paradox: negotiating monastic seclusion and pilgrim hospitality in the Late Antique Near East” Text available on-line at: 


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