Thorns in the Flesh: Illness and Sanctity in Late Ancient Christianity

Thorns in the Flesh: Illness and Sanctity in Late Ancient Christianity

Thorns in the Flesh: Illness and Sanctity in Late Ancient Christianity

Thorns in the Flesh: Illness and Sanctity in Late Ancient Christianity


The literature of late ancient Christianity is rich both in saints who lead lives of almost Edenic health and in saints who court and endure horrifying diseases. In such narratives, health and illness might signify the sanctity of the ascetic, or invite consideration of a broader theology of illness. In Thorns in the Flesh, Andrew Crislip draws on a wide range of texts from the fourth through sixth centuries that reflect persistent and contentious attempts to make sense of the illness of the ostensibly holy. These sources include Lives of Antony, Paul, Pachomius, and others; theological treatises by Basil of Caesarea and Evagrius of Pontus; and collections of correspondence from the period such as the Letters of Barsanuphius and John.

Through close readings of these texts, Crislip shows how late ancient Christians complicated and critiqued hagiographical commonplaces and radically reinterpreted illness as a valuable mode for spiritual and ascetic practice. Illness need not point to sin or failure, he demonstrates, but might serve in itself as a potent form of spiritual practice that surpasses even the most strenuous of ascetic labors and opens up the sufferer to a more direct knowledge of the self and the divine. Crislip provides a fresh and nuanced look at the contentious and dynamic theology of illness that emerged in and around the ascetic and monastic cultures of the later Roman world.


The sick saint has long captured the western imagination. Take Anatole France̱s 1890 novel Thaïs. Although France is no longer fashionable (and is hardly in print in English), from the fin de siècle to the 1920s France spoke of the mentality of the times. He was considered by many “the greatest living author” in 1924 (the year he won the Nobel Prize for literature) and praised by such still-revered authors as Edmund Wilson and Henry James. in Thaïs, his most popular novel—an international bestseller translated into eighteen languages—France begins his tale of late ancient Egypt with a graphic, pathological image of the early decades of monastic life. Anchorites and coenobites suffer gladly through harsh ascetic behaviors, making themselves sick. This lifestyle transforms the monk into something injured yet aesthetically desirable: “Mindful of original sin, they refused to give to their bodies not only pleasure and satisfaction but even the care that is considered necessary by those who live in the world. They believed that physical affliction purified the soul and that the flesh could receive no more glorious adornment than ulcers and open sores. Thus was the word of the prophets observed: ‘The desert shall be covered with flowers.’”

France’s adaptation of the prophet Isaiah evokes the image of the desert as body, erupting with the bloom of diseased ascetics, much as each ascetic’s body is adorned by the efflorescence of disease. France places the cultivation of illness at the heart of the nascent monastic movement, a distinctive feature of the exotic world of late ancient Egyptian asceticism. While Athanasius of Alexandria in his Life of Antony famously characterized the same period of monasticism’s birth as a desert transformed into a city of health, led by Antony as a “physician (iatros) for Egypt,” in Anatole France’s version the desert becomes a garden of disease.

A generation later than France in his native Romania, E. M. Cioran too identified illness as central to the Christian ascetic project, drawing on the lives of the saints he had read as a child and the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose Genealogy of Morals is suffused with images of disease, sickness . . .

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