I recently posted a couple of pieces on ‘masculine Christianity’. One name that deserves to be better known in this regard is Peter Orseolo (928-927) – little known today but a role model in many ways.
His life reads rather like a novel. Adventure, intrigue, unusual twists in the plot, it’s all there. He was a nobleman from Venice and even as a youth had a reputation for strength. So, when Venice needed a commander to lead a fleet against the pirates who terrorised the Adriatic, they chose Orseolo – aged only 20. And he won, sweeping the marauders from Venetian shores.
In 976 there were riots in Venice. The Doge (the chief magistrate and ruler) was murdered and a large part of the city destroyed by fire. A strong and competent leader was needed, so whom did they choose? Peter Orseolo was made the new Doge and set about the huge task of reconstruction.
He showed himself a remarkable statesman and one of the greatest rulers of Venice. He made peace between enemies. He built hospitals and set up social programs to care for widows, orphans and pilgrims. He began rebuilding St Mark’s Cathedral, icon of the city.
Then, in September 978, at the height of his powers, Orseolo disappeared! Not even his wife and son knew where he was. An extensive search finally traced him to a Benedictine monastery in the mountains between France and Spain. Had he felt crushed by responsibilities? Perhaps, but he revealed later that God had been troubling his heart for ten years over the call to renounce everything to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Orseolo cut himself off from all his past life and achievements and put himself under the guidance of the abbot of Cuxa, dedicating himself to prayer. The fighter who had defeated pirates and political enemies now took on the harder conflict of dethroning self. The man who had ruled a city state now took a vow of obedience! It sounds ironic, but did not Jesus himself teach that true greatness lay not in lording it over others but in humbling oneself and becoming a servant? (Matthew 20:25-27)
But the lion did not altogether become a lamb! He brought to the monastery his fighting spirit, attracting spiritual brothers and sons by his steely determination and innate leadership charisma.
John Cassian (c. 360–435 AD) was a monk, theologian and mystic based in Marseille, France. His spirituality and writings had far-ranging influence, not least on Benedict of Nursia and Gregory the Great.
Cassian was deeply attracted to the desert monasticism of the Near East. He and a monastic friend Germanus toured Palestine and Egypt, visiting monasteries and recording impressions and conversations. This formed the basis of Cassian’s work, Conferences, dated to around 415. It is available in PDF format here.
In Conference 16: On Friendship, he and his friend record a conversation with Abbot Joseph at a monastery in Egypt. The abbot touches on human relationships:
Nothing is more damaging [to true friendship] than anger and vexation. Our enemy, the devil, sows the seeds of discord even between spiritual persons, on the ground of some difference of thinking. Therefore it is of no use to have removed the first ground of discord, which arises from the outward things of this world, unless we also cut off the second, which arises from wrong feelings. In everything we must gain humble thoughts and harmonious wills.
He goes on to look at the subtle differences between love and affection. Joseph maintains that “agapé” love (the New Testament word for Christ-like, self-sacrificing love) can be shown by Christians to anyone, on the basis of “doing good to all people, especially those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). Genuine heart-affection, however, he sees as shown only to a few: those who are united to us by kindred dispositions or by a tie of goodness. There are levels to this, he points out, and they are variable: not all parents love their children to the same degree.
The remainder of Conference 16 is concerned with a more specifically monastic danger: of conforming and going through the motions of true brotherly affection, when the heart has lost the desire for it. This is the danger for any church, community or missional movement today, since drift is endemic to human nature.
All this made an impression on Cassian and Germanus, who conclude: Thus the blessed Joseph discoursed on spiritual friendship, and fired us with a more ardent desire to preserve the love of our fellowship as a lasting one.