By Irene Cox-Carstairs
“The third and worst kind of monk are the Sarabaites, who have never been tried under any Rule, nor by the experience of a master…” ~ St. Benedict
Religious recluses were a common feature of the medieval monastic landscape. From anchorites, who withdrew to a cell attached to a church or monastery, to hermits who wandered the wilderness, these recluses were seen as a sort of living saint, and someone to be revered. However, not all recluses were created equal, and Sarabaites, recluses who lived in pairs or trios independent of any monastic rule or oversight, definitely weren’t as saintly as your garden variety hermit. Most were suspected of taking liberties with their definition of monastic life, and were accused of laziness, gluttony, promiscuity, adultery, homosexuality, hypocrisy, deceit, and greed.
The word “Sarabaite” comes from Coptic, a language spoken by early Egyptian Christians. Accordingly, the practice of Sarabitism originated in the Egyptian desert. Sarabaites existed in both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, and while most of the stories we will discuss here are of Sarabaites living in North Africa and the Levant, Sarabaites spread across Europe across the Mediterranean, into Anatolia, and all the way to the British Isles.
The first record of Sarabaites popped up in Athanasius’ fourth-century Life of Antony. They were later mentioned in the fifth-century Apophthegmata Patrum, in Theodoret of Cyrrhus’s A History of the Monks of Syria, and in tracts by St. Benedict of Nursia, John Cassian, St. Jerome, and St. Celestine. They remained in the record until the fifteenth century, when stricter rules were applied to eremitic life and Sarabaites faded from the picture.
Sarabaites were not as secluded as anchorites, or as social as regular monks. Some lived in cells in the wilderness, but more lived in cities or lavra – loose communities formed of Sarabaites and hermits. Sarabaites in cities often took jobs, and not only interacted with the general public, but also visited laypeople in their homes. This was scandalous, as contact with the general public could lead to feasting or consorting with virgins – both grave perils to the monastic soul. It smacked of enjoying the material pleasures of the world, a charge that haunted every Sarabaite.
It may seem a bit counterintuitive for a hermit to live with a companion, but for Sarabaites living in pairs was considered necessary to avoid sin. Brothers supported each other spiritually. When one struggled with his prayers he elicited the other for help. If another struggled to honor his vows, his brother talked sense into him. When they swore to live together, Sarabaites took responsibility for each other’s souls, a responsibility that was not taken lightly.
A story from the Anonymous Sayings of the Desert Fathers tells of a young Sarabaite who sacrificed his life to save his brother, an elder monk. The elder monk was an alcoholic who wove and sold a single mat every day, then drank the profits. The younger monk moved into the elder’s cell and also began weaving mats to sell each day. The elder monk would sell both mats, and drink all of the profits, bringing the younger monk only a little bread. For three years the younger monk endured this. Over time the younger grew frustrated and considered leaving his brother. However, realizing that his responsibility was not to his own comfort but to god, he decided to stay. An angel appeared to him, and told him that he would die on the morrow. The next day, the younger monk begged the elder to not leave, because he (the younger) was going to die. The elder scoffed, but as he did the younger monk died. The elder monk was so remorseful that he swore off alcohol, and withdrew to the desert.
This young monk, in the most dramatic way possible, forced the elder to swear off his sins. However, while living with a brother some provided accountability and spiritual support, living away from an abbot made it easier to give in to and get away with some sins, especially sexual sins.
Monastics giving in to sexual temptation was a constant concern for church officials. Monks and nuns living in monasteries were subject to draconian rules to enforce chastity among the ranks. Away from the watchful eye of an abbot, a Sarabaite could get up to anything. Bishops and abbots feared that Sarabaites would give in to lust, and their fears weren’t unfounded. There are records of several Sarabaites who gleefully broke their vows, and it is those Sarabaites that made writers like St. Benedict of Nursia and John Cassian so disdainful of the order.
However, surviving tales of monks gone wild often underscore the importance of eremitic companionship. In John Moschos’ Spiritual Meadow, one Sarabaite decided to abandon his cell for the secular world. His brother pleaded with him not to go, but the other was not persuaded, and left his cell. The other went with him, and while the unfaithful Sarabaite drank and fornicated, the other prayed, threw dirt upon himself, and labored building an abbey to save his brother’s soul. Eventually, the unfaithful Sarabaite was convinced by his brother’s behavior to return to their cell in the desert, and take up his habit once more. It is because of his monastic companion that the unfaithful monk decided to return to his life of contemplation, making his companion the reason for the safety of his soul.
Homosexuality was an additional concern in monasteries, and brothers who were seen as being too close to each other were often subject to gossip and discipline. If two monks sitting too close or talking too often was concerning, two men who decided to go live unsupervised in the world together were alarming. That this was a concern among Sarabaites is evident in an anecdote from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: One monk living in a lavra, saw two other monks who shared a cell, and were very close. He went to an elder, and suggested to the elder that the two monks were lovers. Concerned, the elder decided to test the two monks. He asked them to sleep on the same mat, under the same blanket. When the brothers didn’t openly fornicate, they were acquitted, and the accusing monk was sent to his cell for having an evil spirit upon him.
However, not all of the panic surrounding Sarabaites and homosexuality was unfounded. It seems that many monks used the practice of Sarabaitism to form a domestic partnership, not unlike a marriage. In the hagiography of Symeon the Fool. Symeon, a sixth-century saint, met a man named John on the road to Jerusalem. It was, essentially, love at first sight. They became fast friends and were inseparable. On the way back to Syria they decided to abandon Symeon’s aged mother and John’s new wife to devote themselves to god.
Upon receiving the tonsure, the pair moved into the desert and became Sarabaites. They lived together for 29 years, honoring and reverencing each other before Symeon decided to leave their cell to preach in the world. John didn’t take the news well. He was distraught, and hurt, and angry that his beloved companion had suddenly decided to leave him. He pleaded with Symeon, saying:
…do not leave wretched me…you know that after God, I have no one except you my brother, but I renounced all and was bound to you…we agreed not to be separated from each other. Remember that fearful hour when we were clothed in the holy habit and we two were as one soul, so that all were astonished at our love.
Symeon would not be persuaded however, and John accompanied him part of the way into the world, not at all comforted by Symeon’s promise that he would appear to John in a vision shortly before their deaths.
In a move that bears a definite resemblance to a marriage, several Sarabaites entered into contracts promising to live together and leave each other property upon their deaths. Aioulios and Eulogios, two Sarabaites of Arsinoe Egypt, drew up a contract in 511 that paints a vivid picture of what must have been a very interesting situation. It is unknown if it was drafted before or while Aioulios and Eulogios were living together, but bears resemblance to a prenuptial agreement. In it, Aioulios promises to leave Eulogios his cell after his death. He also promises that during their lifetime should he leave Eulogios or bring a third person into their cell without Eulogios’s permission, the cell is forfeit. Eulogios promises to simply never throw Aioulios out of the cell. Witnessed by twelve monks of different denominations, these two men entered into a contract to live together and share property. For them, and the hundreds of monks like them, becoming a Sarabaite was not only an emotional commitment like it was for John and Symeon, but a legal and financial commitment as well.
It must be noted that, while Sarabaites had a more flexible view of what seclusion was, they still practiced a form of asceticism. In the tale of Symeon the Holy Fool, John and Symeon, the main characters, went for long periods of time without speaking. Maran and Cyra, two noblewomen turned ascetics, fasted all the way to and back from Jerusalem. Two Syrian Sarabaites ended up running away from their elderly cellmate because he had taken a vow to never sit or lie down, and they were too embarrassed to sit while an old man stood.
While many abbots and bishops were quietly suspicious of Sarabaites, some church leaders outright condemned them. This article opens with a quote from St. Benedict in his seminal 516 CE rule, where he defines the different orders of monks and hermits. In the eyes of Benedict, the only thing worse than a Sarabaite was a Gyrevogue. He wrote that Sarabaites lived a life of hedonism, holding their desires as holy, and considering what they didn’t desire as evil. While Benedict’s rule is perhaps the most enduring text that mentions the Sarabaites, they are also denounced by John Cassian in his Conferences of the Desert Fathers, and in letters from St. Jerome and John Scholastikos.
All of these denunciations have a common theme, the belief that Sarabaites were hypocrites and sinners. Cassian wrote that Sarabaites were men who wanted the prestige that came with being a monk, but who didn’t want to follow the strict rules that came with the habit. Benedict agreed, his main point being that Sarabaites were deceivers, and by claiming to be monks they lied to god. Jerome denounced their lack of a rule, and Scholastikos wrote in disgust of Sarabaites who lived riotously.
Though disdained, many Sarabaites considered their profession to be a holy calling, the same as it would be for any anchorite or hermit. For Symeon and John, seclusion was far holier than living in a community. Shortly after receiving the tonsure, Symeon met a young monk who had just left seclusion. There was a holy crown above his head, but Symeon noted that a few days after the monk came out of seclusion it was gone. This is what sent Symeon and John into the desert. Marana and Cyra felt that they had been called, as did many others.
Sarabaites flourished in cities and in the desert for several centuries, but as time went on, and as Christianity split into western and eastern traditions, church officials became less tolerant of Sarabaites, especially in Western Europe. By the sixteenth century being a hermit was no longer supported by official church dogma, and Sarabaites disappeared from the record completely.
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.
Top Image: Drawing of a Coptic Saint, created in Egypt in the 6th–7th century – image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art