Writing and Holiness: The Practice of Authorship in the Early Christian East

Writing and Holiness: The Practice of Authorship in the Early Christian East

Writing and Holiness: The Practice of Authorship in the Early Christian East

Writing and Holiness: The Practice of Authorship in the Early Christian East

Synopsis

Drawing on comparative literature, ritual and performance studies, and the history of asceticism, Derek Krueger explores how early Christian writers came to view writing as salvific, as worship through the production of art. Exploring the emergence of new and distinctly Christian ideas about authorship in late antiquity, Writing and Holiness probes saints' lives and hymns produced in the Greek East to reveal how the ascetic call to imitate Christ's humility rendered artistic and literary creativity problematic. In claiming authority and power, hagiographers appeared to violate the saintly practices that they sought to promote. Christian writers meditated within their texts on these tensions and ultimately developed a new set of answers to the question "What is an author?"

Each of the texts examined here used writing as a technique for the representation of holiness. Some are narrative representations of saints that facilitate veneration; others are collections of accounts of miracles, composed to publicize a shrine. Rather than viewing an author's piety as a barrier to historical inquiry, Krueger argues that consideration of writing as a form of piety opens windows onto new modes of practice. He interprets Christian authors as participants in the religious system they described, as devotees, monastics, and faithful emulators of the saints, and he shows how their literary practice integrated authorship into other Christian practices, such as asceticism, devotion, pilgrimage, liturgy, and sacrifice. In considering the distinctly literary contributions to the formation of Christian piety in late antiquity, Writing and Holiness uncovers Christian literary theories with implications for both Eastern and Western medieval literatures.

Excerpt

For Lent 382, Gregory of Nazianzus placed himself under a vow of silence. This discipline, while restricting speech, did not restrain him from writing. In fact, as his poem “On Silence at the Time of Fasting” suggests, Gregory employed writing to assist him in his Lenten practice. “Hold still, dear tongue. And you, my pen, write down the words of silence and tell to the eyes the matters of my heart” (lines 1–2). In Gregory’s hands, literary composition became a method for exploring his introspective quiet. While Gregory’s poem documents his devotions, it also uses his writing to display and publicize his virtue. He writes, “Accept these sounds from my hand that you may have a speaking monument to my silence” (lines 209– 210). On the page, readers would see Gregory performing his repentant silence. If they were reading aloud, as is likely, to themselves or to others, they would, ironically, even hear it. The poem produces an image of its author as pious, dutifully engaging in the patterns of religious observance. Moreover, for Gregory, adherence to literary form highlighted the disciplinary potential of writing: composing metrical poetry could become a formative spiritual practice. “I followed the advice of holy men and placed a door on my lips. The reason was that I should learn to set a measure meter], and be in control of everything” (lines 10–12). In another poem, “On Writings in Meter,” Gregory states that he writes poetry “to subdue [his] own unmeasuredness.” Gregory uses meter not only to craft his poem, but to craft himself as well. The discipline of writing served as a powerful metaphor for the composition of a more Christian self.

In adapting writing as a tool for the cultivation of virtue, Gregory was not unique. In the course of the fourth century, Christians negotiated a distinct relationship between writing and the religious life. According to Athanasius, Antony commanded his monks to keep diaries “to note and write down” the “stirrings of [their] souls.” John Chrysostom called on his lay . . .

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