The Monastic Paradox: negotiating monastic seclusion and pilgrim hospitality in the Late Antique Near East

Marlena Whiting (University of Amsterdam)

Mosaic from the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes at Tabgha (Heptapegon) in the Galilee (c) Elias Khamis/Manar al-Athar
Mosaic from the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes at Tabgha (Heptapegon) in the Galilee (c) Elias Khamis/Manar al-Athar

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.

The legalization of Christianity following the Edict of Milan in 313 brought about significant changes in the manifestation of its religious practices. The construction of prominent architectural monuments, especially at sites associated with Biblical events and the graves of martyrs, provided new focal points for commemoration, and the significance of these sites transcended their local congregations and drew visitors – pilgrims – often from long distances. Concomitantly with the rise in the popularity of pilgrimage, another prominent feature of early and medieval Christianity emerged: monasticism.

The developments of the two phenomena are intertwined. At first the two seem to be contradictory, to have different aims. Pilgrimage is about gathering and community. Monasticism is about withdrawal. The earliest forms of monasticism were predicated on anachoresis – going up into the wilderness: a solitary lifestyle of asceticism, contemplation, and isolation. Communal forms of monasticism also emerged, based on a shared rule and community in that sense, but the ideal of isolation from the secular world – including renunciation of social and familial ties – remained.

What the two phenomena, pilgrimage and monasticism, share in particular is the focus on sacred space. Pilgrims are drawn to a location by the inherent sanctity of the space, whether because it is the site of an event of the New or Old Testament, it is the burial site of a martyr or saint, or it has other holy attributes (e.g., healing springs), from which some spiritual or even physical benefit might be obtained. Monasteries similarly form at sacred sites for similar reasons, and monastics often become custodians of loca sancta. Monasteries also form around holy figures, such as famous anchorites, who also might be focal points for pilgrimage, both when alive or after their death.

It is also important to make the distinction, on which I shall elaborate later, that there is not a strict division between pilgrims and those in monastic life: we should not think of pilgrims as members of the laity with freedom of movement, and monastics as stationary and secluded in holy orders. Many of the pilgrims we know of from Late Antiquity were themselves monastics, and “itinerant monks”, though not the norm, are certainly an identifiable phenomenon (see Caner, 2002).

The paradox identified above arises from the ideal of monasticism which is based on seclusion, and pilgrimage as an inclusive act that attracted all levels of society. In practice, the tension arises from the need for monks based at holy sites to provide food and lodging for pilgrims in an organized way, and at the same time maintain their solitude. A great deal can be gleaned from archaeological information regarding how this paradox was resolved architecturally at pilgrim complexes, but here I would like to focus more on how it appears in texts, particularly the vitae of Palestinian and Syrian monks, especially those recorded by Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Cyril of Scythopolis, and John of Ephesus.

To understand the obligations of monks towards pilgrims, one needs to understand the position of hospitality in Christian practice and culture, and how it relates to Christian notions of charity.

Charity and hospitality

It is generally thought that the notion of hospitality occupied a different position in non-Christian religious traditions than it does in Christianity. Within paganism and Judaism, hospitality differs from charity in practices and attitudes. The position of the “stranger” or traveller is very different – rather more exalted – from the ailing or indigent who are the recipients of charity. In Hellenized paganism, protection for strangers was a sacred task. Zeus was the protector of travellers and so to offer hospitality – lodging and gifts – to a stranger was to stay on Zeus’ good side. Judaism observed many similar traits in the treatment of guests, but the archetype was Abraham, rather than Zeus. Hospitality was mainly a domestic affair based on kinship or friendship ties, not institutional. Among Jewish communities, synagogues provided guesthouses for travelling teachers, but these usually travelled in pairs and so constituted a low volume of traffic (Arterbury, 2005, 58). The annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem necessitated large-scale accommodation, including purpose-built hostels – although in the New Testament description, Jesus and his disciples find private lodgings (Matt 26:17, Mark 14:12, Luke 22, John 13).

Charity likewise was not regarded as an individual obligation for all members of society in the pagan context. Nor was it organized by the state or other institution. At best it was considered a civic duty of the very wealthy, and even so mainly in times of crisis (Clark, 2004, p. 108-9). Similarly, the evidence for organized charity in Judaism before the second half of the first century AD is slight (Gardner 2015, p. 10-12). In Christian rhetoric, almsgiving was an act of love, of caritas or agape, it was also considered by some proponents to be as spiritually rewarding fasting or prayer, or even more so. In addition to encouraging giving as an individual moral obligation, Christian communities were able to systematize the distribution of the alms collected. Christian charity managed to outstrip its predecessors in terms of the scale on which it was implemented. A systematic practice of Christian charity was probably in place by the middle of the first century. The methodical organization of the allocation of alms appears to have been one of the defining characteristics of early Christianity that set it apart from Roman pagan society. The emperor Julian the Apostate grudgingly attributed Christianity’s success as a growing religion to the systematic care for the less fortunate of their communities and the appeal that had for the disfranchised (Julian, Ep. 84). Hospitality also took on overtones of an act of Christian caritas, following on from scriptural models. These include Abraham and Sarah (Gen 18-19) – who are frequently invoked as prime exemplars – as well as the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:9-16), Rahab at Jericho (Josh 2:1-21), and apostolic models from the New Testament (e.g., Acts 10:1-11:18). (See Arterbury, 2002, esp. pp. 55, 65-71)

In monastic contexts, we see a different emphasis, where the stranger is equated with Jesus Christ himself (e.g., Cassian, Institutes 5.24). One the one hand, this could have Christian origins, being an interpretation of the Judgement of Nations from Matthew 25, esp. ch. 41 (“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”). On the other hand, it also evokes pre-Christian Mediterranean practices, where it was customary to extend to someone’s emissary the same courtesies as if the sender themselves were present (Mitchell, 1992, Arterbury, 2002, 67).

The practice of formalized almsgiving provided a natural context for accommodating pilgrims. Considering that the stated purpose of xenodochia was to tend to the needs of xenoi kai ptochoi, i.e. both strangers and the poor, it would be a natural extension of any hospice to welcome Christian travelers in need, especially those on a spiritual journey. But is pilgrim hospitality regarded as an act of charity, or does the distinction apparent in the Greco-Roman tradition extend? Basil of Caesarea described what has been regarded as the first Christian hostelry as “for those who are on a journey and for those who require treatment on account of sickness” (Ep. 94). However, when reading later texts there does seem to be a separation between spaces intended for pilgrim travellers and spaces intended for the indigent, the elderly, the ill, etc.

On the construction of the Nea Ekklesia in Jerusalem in the mid-6th century, Procopius tells us that it has two hostels: kataluterion xenois, an inn for guests, and anapausterion nosousi ptochois, a place for the ailing poor (De Aed. 5.6.25). This suggests a clear separation of function. Archaeological excavations have revealed what could have been two identical spaces along the south side of the complex. In the account of the Piacenza pilgrim of ca. 570 he says the two hostels were for men and women, another likely reason for providing two similar but distinct lodgings. The Piacenza Pilgrim also notes that “for travellers they have a vast number of tables, and more than three thousand beds for the sick” (Piacenza Pilgrim, Itinerarium 23). What is not clear from the Piacenza Pilgrim is whether the separation between travellers and the sick is preserved by separate buildings, as Procopius indicates.

There could of course be an extremely practical justification for this division, a desired to contain the spread of disease, but this would not explain why the poor were usually dumped in with the sick. The division could be conceptual, that hospitality to strangers and charity towards one’s own community remained compartmentalized. However, given the extent to which pilgrims themselves were often sick and in search of a cure, it seems likely that the division was a matter of status. Furthermore, not all visitors to a shrine were necessarily accommodated in purpose-built lodging: many clustered together in church porticos and courtyards.

I want to now turn to look at hospitality within the monastic context, particularly in rural areas. In urban environments there was a greater concentration of clergy, under whose auspices hospitality and charity were organized, although often carried out by monastic communities. Rural monastic communities were meant, indeed, actively encouraged, to have a different emphasis, so the paradox between hospitality and solitude is more pronounced.

Remains of the column of Simeon Stylites the Elder at Qalaat Siman in northern Syria (c) Sean Leatherbury/Manar al-Athar
Remains of the column of Simeon Stylites the Elder at Qalaat Siman in northern Syria (c) Sean Leatherbury/Manar al-Athar

The Monastic Paradox in literary sources: trope or reality?

The texts that most colourfully illustrate to us the lives of monks and holy sites are, of course, biased towards emphasizing the miraculous aspects of their protagonists. To what extent we should trust these texts when they describe to us the extremes to which holy men and women were driven in their desire to attain the ascetic ideal is dependent on this. Furthermore, many of these stories, particularly the Theodoret of Cyrrhus’ Lives of the Monks of Syria and John of Ephesus’ Lives of the Eastern Saints are written in politically charged environments, with strong undercurrents of polemic and apologetic not immediately evident from the stories themselves.

Living holy persons are inherently paradoxical: the greater their forms of asceticism, which usually take the form of extreme isolation (living in deserted locations, being immured in their cell), the holier they are considered, and more likely to be sought for advice or offer blessings or even to perform miracles. Theodoret records monks trying to escape the crowds that their fame has attracted, either by moving location frequently (Theodoret, Hist. Rel. XIII) or by joining a monastic community as “cover”, using the separation of a walled monastic community from the secular world as an additional means of keeping that world at bay (Hist. Rel. XVIII).

One example of extreme isolation are the stylite saints. Stylitism is a peculiar phenomenon: to pursue greater spiritual agon, a monk isolates himself from his community and ascends a pillar. A harsh regime to be sure, but a surprisingly public one. A stylite remains visible to everyone in the community, and even further afield. St Simeon the Elder, the originator of the practice, set himself atop a very high hill overlooking the monastery, village, and road. Stylites and other recluses often deliberately placed themselves on hilltops overlooking roads. However, the life of Simeon the Elder suggests that Simeon retreated to ever-taller pillars in a desire to get away from crowds. Theodoret of Cyrrhus informs us “as the visitors came in increasing numbers and they all tried to touch him and gain some blessing from those skin garments, he thought at first that this excess of honor was out of place but then he found it annoying and tedious and therefore devised the standing on a column. First he had one hewn of six cubits, then one of twelve, after that one of twenty-two, and now one of thirty-six, for he longs to soar to heaven and leave this earthly sojourn”. This is of course contradictory: the higher the pillar the greater the saint’s fame, and therefore the greater the crowds. Theodoret however converts this into an act demonstrating the saint’s humility.

Huge crowds attended Simeon, but the vitae say very little about how they were accommodated. The mountain-top complex constructed after the saint’s death includes hostels, and there are further accommodations in the village below. However, it was not possible for Simeon to be directly responsible for hospitality, in the form of offering food. It was only possible to approach the saint via a ladder, usually through the intermediary of another monk of the monastery. Women were not permitted inside the enclosure at all. (e.g., Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Life of Symeon Stylites, Chs 12, 21, and 81). Here hospitality had to be discharged on the institutional level, rather than at the private level.

In the lives of the Monophysite saints of Syria, we see more examples of private hospitality. One important manifestation of hospitality was the sharing of a meal. This presents a problem, insofar as the food considered necessary for self-abnegation (barley and pulses, no bread), as well as the habits of fasting, would be a contravention of the rules of hospitality to force on a guest, so special food, such as bread or wine, would be made available (e.g., John of Ephesus, Lives of the Eastern Saints, Ch. XXIII). John of Ephesus recalls the story of one holy man who “fulfilled himself of two purposes, both that of seclusion and that of the entertainment of strangers”. This holy man, also named Simeon, walled himself up in a small complex, but left a ladder so that guests could climb up. He would only eat when he had visitors, at other times he would fast, because the guest is Christ and he would only eat in the presence of Christ (John of Ephesus, Lives of the Eastern Saints, Ch. V. Cf Cassian, Institutes 5.26). Simeon’s disciple takes the combination of isolation and hospitality a step further: “they made a guest-house outside, and there used to entertain all who came with everything out of the window, whether they were women or laymen, each as was proper for him.” He also ran a school through the window (John of Ephesus, Lives of the Eastern Saints, Ch. V).

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).

It is interesting to note that stories of entertaining guests are much more common in the Syrian tradition, in the saints’ lives collected by John of Ephesus and Theodoret of Cyrrhus. Stories of maintaining seclusion while simultaneously discharging duties of hospitality occur in these Syrian sources, but are not actually mentioned in the stories of similar lifestyles of seclusion among Palestinian monks. In the lives of the Palestinian monks collected by Cyril of Scythopolis there is reference to large numbers of visitors, and while there is little specific discussion of offering hospitality, there are allusions to an institutional apparatus – guesthouses and guestmasters – designed to take care of the situation, but less access to individual monks. In fact, in the Institutes, John Cassian notes with surprise the practice among Egyptian monks of breaking their strict fast to accommodate guests, stating that this is not the practice in Palestine (Cassian, Institutes 5.24). We may have stumbled on a difference in regional practice, or a means for biographers to make distinctions along doctrinal lines, especially in the politically charged environments of the mid-5th and 6th centuries.

Different guests; different access

We must not make the mistake of assuming that all pilgrims were of equal standing.

In the stories above, most of the guests being received are other monks. They would have greater access to the “private” areas of the monastery: invited to dine in the refectories, or granted audiences with monks who would be secluded from the laity, so that they might benefit from their wisdom. The popular literature, apothegmata patrum, sayings of the fathers, was often collected by such itinerant monks, like John Moschos or John of Ephesus.

Monks were frequent pilgrims to holy sites as well, in addition to visiting other monks. The pilgrimage sites of Jerusalem and Mount Sinai were popular destinations. Some monks chose to make their homes there: the monasteries of the Judean Desert in particular are populated with monks from as far away as Cappadocia or Bithynia. And of course there are the famous western pilgrims who never went home, like Jerome and Paula, Melania, etc. In John of Ephesus’ stories, the persecutions directed against Monophysites mean there are more displaced persons than might otherwise be seeking hospitality, this creates a great movement of people. In fact, because transience was normally discouraged among monks (travelling monks needed the permission of their hegumen, obedience being part of monastic life), monks arriving might be received further into the fold of the monastery because it was expected that they might make their home there permanently?

Bishops, also, being ordained priests had spiritual authority over monks, and thus were also granted access, invited to “dig” their way into the walled up cells of those who had chosen total seclusion, as Theodoret, bishop of Cyrrhus, repeatedly describes (e.g., Hist. Rel. XVIII.2, XX.3, XXII.2, XXV.2, XXIX.5). In the eastern tradition there was a prevalent practice of ordaining monks as bishops. Thus Theodoret, John of Ephesus, and also Theodore of Sykeon in the later 6th century: they had great admiration for other practitioners of asceticism and appear to have taken joy in meeting them. Monks could also be short-term visitors Theodore of Sykeon, who was able to travel extensively in Asia Minor and the Near East – to Jerusalem, Mount Sinai, and Constantinople, lodging mainly in monasteries. However his reputation a holy man and his one-time status as a bishop likely opened many doors.

In contrast to monastic visitors, we have the laity. These are the pilgrims who would visit a site in the hope of gaining some spiritual benefit, and who would come in the greatest numbers. Their presence is archaeologically attested in the vast hostel complexes found attached to many monastic pilgrim centers, even if they often remain nameless in the texts. Different types of monastery are better equipped to provide hospitality, namely the centralized coenobia with differentiated household activities which could include maintaining and provisioning a separate guesthouse. As laura monasteries were often consolidated into coenobia after the death of the charismatic founder, this accounts for the phenomenon of increased emphasis on institutional pilgrim hospitality.

Even within this group of lay pilgrims there is a further delineation: along gender lines. For example, while male members of the laity could approach a holy figure, women were often not even permitted to enter the precinct. This is clear from both the life of St Saba in the Judean Desert, when a woman in need of healing is left at the gates while her husband intercedes with the holy man on her behalf (Cyril of Scythopolis, Life of Euthymius, Ch. 54). Similarly, a sick woman on a stretcher is left outside the enclosure of St Simeon Stylites, where women were forbidden to enter. (Syriac Life Ch. 33). Even the saint’s mother was denied entry, although she was subsequently buried at the foot of his column (Antoninus’ Life Ch. 14).

There is also a distinction maintained between elite guests and the hoi polloi. In the accounts of Egeria and Paula they have quite a high degree of access to sites, monks, and clergy. Melania the Elder hosted a number of guests of the Roman and Constantinopolitan elite, who were familiar to her as a member of the senatorial class, through social networks if not in person. This represents the Christianization of elite networks of hospitality that functioned among Greco-Roman society, although this could also be turned on its head by rejecting traditional socially based hospitality for humbler alternatives as Paula and Melania did (Jerome, Ep. 108; Gerontius, Vita s. Melaniae 36).


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.


Arterbury, A.E., The Ancient Custom of Hospitality, the Greek Novels, and Acts 10: 1-11: 18, in Perspectives in Religious Studies, 29/1, 2002, p. 53-72.

Arterbury, A.E., Entertaining Angels: Early Christian Hospitality in Its Mediterranean Setting, Sheffield, 2005.

Basil of Caesarea, Letters, dans B. Jackson, P. Schaff, et al. (eds), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. 8., Buffalo, 1895.

Caner, D., Wandering, begging monks: spiritual authority and the promotion of monasticism in late antiquity, Berkeley, 2002.

Cassian, J., Institutes of the Coenobia, in P. Schaff (ed.), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. 9, Buffalo 1894.

Clark, G., Christianity and Roman society, Cambridge, 2004.

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Gardner, G.E., The Origins of Organized Charity in Rabbinic Judaism, New York, 2015.

Gerontius, Vita s. Melaniae, in D. Gorce (ed.), Vie de Sainte Mélanie: texte grec, Paris, 1962.

Jerome, Epistolae, in J. Labourt (ed.), Lettres, Paris, 1949.

John of Ephesus, Lives of the Eastern Saints, in E.W. Brooks (ed.), Paris, 1923.

Julian, Letters, in W. Wright (ed.), The Works of the Emperor Julian, Cambridge Mass., 1923.

Mitchell, M.M., New Testament Envoys in the Context of Greco-Roman Diplomatic and Epistolary Conventions: The Example of Timothy and Titus, in Journal of Biblical Literature, 111/4, 1992, p. 641-62.

Piacenza Pilgrim, Itinerarium, in J. Wilkinson (ed.), Jerusalem Pilgrims Before the Crusades, Warminster, 2002.

Procopius, De Aedeficiis, in H.B. Dewing, ed., On Buildings, Cambridge Mass., 1971.

Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Historia Religiosa, R.M. Price (ed.), A History of the Monks of Syria, Kalamazoo, 1985.

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