Early Christian practice emphasised asceticism and poverty, but the idea of radical withdrawal from the world in pursuit of God did not emerge until the third century AD. By that time hermits and ascetics already existed, but they lived in huts on the outskirts of towns, ie close to civilisation. Around 269 St Anthony of Antioch (251?-356) joined their number after selling his family’s land and embarking on a life of fasting, prayer and contemplation.
Athanasius records that the devil frequently taunted Anthony. Undaunted, the saint abandoned the relative comfort of a hut for a tomb near his native village. Aged 20, he shut the door on himself for 15 years. Villagers brought him food while Satan beat him mercilessly. Seeking yet greater austerity, in 285 Anthony became the first hermit to move deep into the desert, occupying an abandoned Roman fort at Pispir, 59 miles west of Alexandria. There he spent 20 years in total seclusion, startling everybody when he emerged in 305 to organise the followers who had set up camp around his fort. In 311 he risked martyrdom by visiting Alexandria during the persecutions of Maximian. When it didn’t come, he returned to Pispir, before moving to the Red Sea where he spent the next 45 years in less strict seclusion, instructing the believers who had gathered around him.
Thus the “Father of All Monks” set an imposing example of mental, physical and spiritual fortitude. Within a century of his death, however, other ascetics were seeking still more severe forms of mortification in the pursuit of God. St Simeon Stylites (390-459) entered a monastery aged 16, but his zeal for austerity disturbed his fellow monks so much they expelled him. Undaunted, Simeon experimented with different forms of isolation until settling for life spent standing atop a pillar in the desert near Aleppo, Syria. There, exposed to the winds, rain and scouring heat he spent 39 years drawing closer to God. Even an ulcer in his thigh could not persuade him to descend to earth. He inspired a namesake, St Simeon the Younger (521-597) to ascend a pillar before he had lost his milk teeth, and stay there for 68 years. By contrast, St Alypius only managed to stand on his pillar for 53 years before his feet gave out – so he lay on his side for the next 14 years, until he died.
But asceticism is only one strand of monkish toughness, as the military religious orders that emerged during the Crusades attest. For two centuries the Knights Templar guarded “Outremer”, the Christian states established after the First Crusade and were, according to the historian Desmond Seward, “the first properly disciplined and ordered troops in the West since Roman times”. Members of the Knights Templar were permitted to eat meat and drink wine, for war was considered their mortification. Killing pagans was not homicide but malecide, the extirpation of evil. Fighting led to heaven.
Pope Clement V abolished the Knights Templar in 1311, but the precedent they had set survived. Following the collapse of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1291, a rival order, the Knights Hospitalier, moved to Rhodes where it spent the next two centuries harrying Muslim pirates and acquiring a reputation as the greatest seamen of the era. Expelled from Rhodes after a long struggle with the forces of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Knights decamped to Malta, where they carried on attacking pirates and successfully resisted Turkish onslaughts while dabbling (less successfully) in establishing colonies. The third great order of fighting monks was the Teutonic Knights, who not only fought in the Crusades but also invaded, conquered, Germanised and Christianised pagan Prussia. For two centuries Lithuanians and Poles were the frequent targets of their violence. Indeed, the Teutonic Knights were so ferocious that Hitler sought to appropriate their symbols, although he banned the order itself and persecuted its members.
Desert Fathers and warrior monks aside, exceedingly tough men have always been attracted to holy orders, the very austerity acting as a selling point. Ignatius Loyola (1491–1556) had recently had his leg torn open by a cannonball, set, broken and reset, and then reduced by sawing off a bit of bone that was sticking out. While convalescing he read the Lives of the Saints and resolved to outdo them in their deeds of asceticism. His subsequent career was rich in self-mortification and also beatings, assault and general privation rained down upon him by others. A generation later, the Capuchin monk Père Joseph (1577-1638) became the close confidant of Cardinal Richelieu, conspired to ignite a new Crusade against the Turks and personally participated in the 1627 siege of La Rochelle, at that time a Calvinist stronghold.
Warrior monks finally disappeared during the Napoleonic era, and monkish toughness returned to its roots – as the ability to withstand great austerity in the quiet pursuit of God. In the 19th and 20th centuries the Knights of Malta and the Teutonic Knights still faced death on the battlefield, but now they acted (and continue to act) as the bearers of medical relief. Last year Père Joseph’s old order, the Capuchins, made headlines when a convict transferred to a monastery in Sicily escaped and pleaded with police to be sent back to jail where the regime was less demanding. But I’d like to end this brief survey of tough monks with a reminder that there are plenty of tough nuns too. A year and a half ago I visited Juárez, Mexico, which then as now was the epicentre of the drug war ravaging that nation. The day I was there more than 20 people were killed in “the most dangerous city on earth”. I took a tour of the Valley of Snakes, where killings occurred on an almost daily basis. My guide, Sister Peggie, was a nun who lived amid the horror and violence. While we waited for the bus, a group of heavily armed soldiers – potentially as dangerous as members of the cartel – drove past. Panicked, I tried to disappear into the shadows. Sister Peggie raised a hand and waved cheerfully.
Now that’s tough.