Public Lecture by Marianne Saghy at Ilia State University, Tbilisi, Georgia - October 2015

October 29, 2015

Our faculty, Marianne Sághy had a public lecture at Ilia State University in Tbilisi, Georgia. Her lecture was on Saint Martin of Tours and the Desert Fathers: Monastic Competition between East and West in Late Antiquity.

Abstract:  Competition was nothing new among ascetics in Late Antiquity, from the Egyptian desert to the Cappadocian and Roman family monasteries as well as among the educated Christian élite who chronicled throughout the Roman Empire the astonishing feats of the ascetic heroes: Antony of Egypt, Paul of Thebes or Martin of Tours. A somewhat more striking feature is the competition between Western and Eastern ascetics posited in the foundational texts of Latin monasticism. The lecture presents the literary ambitions and implications of the prime example of the complex strategies of monastic competition, the work that demonstrates with brio the superiority of Gallic monasticism over the Egyptian one: Sulpicius Severus’ Gallus, or Dialogues on the Virtues of Martin.  Sulpicius not only places Gaul alongside Cappadocia, Northern Italy, Palestine, and Egypt as yet one more region that turned the desert into a heavenly city, but posits Gaul as a model for Eastern ascetics who look to Western monks for guidance: in the desert, the fathers read only one book: Sulpicius’ Life of Martin and they loudly beg him to write a sequel! In the Gallus, Martin is superior not only to Plato in wisdom and to Cyprian in his enthusiasm for martyrdom, but he excels bothAntony and Pachomius in ascetic vigor— despite his “compromised” lifestyle of episcopal service. Even more pressingly, Sulpicius presents himself as a new kind of Christian writer: a hagiographer who largely irrespective of personal or ecclesial achievement nevertheless serves as an authoritative mediator of ascetic charisma. The desert fathers’ endorsement extends not only to Martin but to Sulpicius as well: it is his written testimony concerning Martin that is in demand. What does all this tell us about the sacred status of the hagiographic text in particular and of monastic literacy in general? This is what this talk sets out to explore.