I’ve been thinking quite a lot about xeniteia in the last months and have toyed with the idea of writing something on it. However, I fear that it’s one of those things – along with so many other things, alas! – that I’m not going to get to for quite a while. But I recently picked this little book up again and thought that this was worth sharing, a bit long though it is.
The ascetic-monastic tradition of the church tried from the very beginning to assimilate the spirit of the incarnation of Christ and follow the model of the wandering Son of Man who accepted the human condition of being a stranger on earth without home and country. Christ in his incarnate state identified himself with the existential situation of humanity exiled from God’s tender love and compassion. As the early Eastern theologians put it, philanthropy or the love for human beings was the divine motivation for incarnation. There is a deep interrelationship between the ascetic-monastic aspiration and God’s act of self-emptying. Monastic spirituality, which became paradigmatic for the Eastern Christian tradition and a part of the Western tradition, was tested for truth against its capacity to unveil this relationship in its vision and practice. The flight to the desert, whose purpose was generally understood even by some ascetics as to be “alone with the Alone”, did not always capture the true spirit of that movement. In those anchorites and monks who successfully fought the spiritual combat in the inhospitable aridity of the desert, the struggle produced not a sterile and negative attitude to the world, but a presence full of tenderness, compassion and openness to others. Those human beings who have “overcome the world” were understood to be more compassionately committed to the world, though unswayed by its passions – apatheia. To be sure, this sort of high spiritual achievement belonged to only a few and not to all who fled to the desert in search of a spiritual oasis. Nevertheless, the ideal and its actual spiritual appropriation even by these few were never understood as purely individual achievements. They constituted the common fund of experience of the Christian community and entered the heart of the tradition of the church at large. It is precisely at this point that monastic spirituality becomes interesting and relevant to our theology and spirituality today.
Very early in the monastic tradition, the theme of xeniteia, the state of being a stranger or foreigner (xenos) became popular. Leaving one’s country of birth, family and possessions and setting off on a journey to a foreign land where one is a total stranger came to be considered the essential starting point for the new spiritual orientation. From the point of view of religious phenomenology, the occurrence of this theme in other world religions and philosophical systems is a commonplace. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus wanted the young aspirants to “leave their brothers, fatherland, friends and family” if they wished to become philosophers. The deeply rooted Hindu and Buddhist image of the mendicant philosopher and itinerant ascetic remains a living tradition, exemplified in the life of sanyasins and bhikshus.
The pilgrim who accepts voluntary exile is wrested from the cares of daily life, at least temporarily. This is one of the benefits of pilgrimage to the temple, according to the famous first-century Jewish philosopher and theologian Philo of Alexandria. For John Climacus, the famous Christian spiritual writer from Sinai in the seventh century, xeniteia is the leaving behind, without return, of everything at home that obstructs us from pursuing the goal of piety. The monk who abandons heart and home and all its cares looks for hesychia, the deep inner quietness, the true freedom of the soul.
The way of the pilgrim was of crucial importance in the monastic tradition. By accepting the path of humiliation and rejection, the monk is trying to follow the spiritual itinerary of Christ himself. In a well-known poem on being a stranger (al aksenaiutha), attributed to St Ephrem, the fourth-century Syrian poet, monk and theologian, the monk is portrayed as a vagabond who has no home, country or means and sleeps on bare ground with a stone as pillow, exposed to heat and cold, hunger and thirst. He is constantly subject to insults and humiliation by others and is contemptuously treated as a beggar, thief, spy or insane. This is typically the condition of xeniteia, the state of being a stranger on earth, a radical spiritual attempt to share the self-emptying of God in Christ for the sake of love for humanity.
The actual physical journey to a foreign land, which many monks, especially in the Syrian tradition, undertook as essential for their spiritual combat, soon gave way to an interiorized and symbolic understanding of being a stranger, particularly in Egyptian desert spirituality. The monk can stay where he is provided he practises total detachment from everything in his environment that makes him familiar and “at home” in this world. “Remain in your cell” was the regular advice given by spiritual elders to the inexperienced monks tormented by spiritual listlessness or restlessness. Desire to go out physically in search of spiritual goals can be disappointing and a snare of the evil one.
Guillaumont traces the preference of the Syrian monks to take the route as pilgrims and vagabonds to their inherited mercantile instinct, which took them to many Asian countries like China and India as missionaries. The Coptic monks on the other hand were mostly hard-willed Egyptian peasants from the Nile valley and delta, for whom leaving the world simply meant separating themselves from their village and fields and moving into the desert. Once they were in the depth of the desert they had to stick to the rule of remaining in their cells. The famous monastic principle of stabilitas in peregrinatione, remaining in one place while travelling – is the interiorization of the ideal of xeniteia and an example of the influence of the Oriental monastic tradition on Western monasticism.
Many stories from monastic history illustrate the need of practising unfamiliarity in the most familiar surroundings. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, the famous collection of spiritual sayings and anecdotes form fourth- and fifth-century Egyptian ascetics, both men and women, tells the story of a young monk who came to Abba Agathon in Scetis seeking spiritual advice. “I want to live with the brothers,” said the young man. “Tell me how to live with the brothers.”
“All the days of your life,” counselled the spiritual father, “keep the frame of mind of the stranger which you have on the first day you join them, so as not to become too familiar with them.”
In fact, the flight to the desert or travel to a foreign country is not an essential element in the spiritual vocation of a true pilgrim. One can develop a spirituality of exile while living with others. As the spiritual mother (Amma) Syncletica rather sarcastically put it: “There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of his own thoughts.”
The end of the biblical story of the fall of humanity is also the beginning of a new story, the journey of Adam and his descendants on the face of a rugged and inhospitable earth. Cain the murderer, son of Adam, carries the curse of humanity and wanders aimlessly in a hostile world. Yet he carries the seal of divine compassion, a protection against complete disintegration. Adam and his progeny entered on a cosmic pilgrimage, treading myriads of routes on earth, ever in search of their true home. Christ the second Adam joined them on the way and became a co-traveller.
K.M. George, The Silent Roots: Orthodox Perspectives on Christian Spirituality (Risk book series) (Geneva, WCC Publications, 1994) 48-51.