The glasses slowly sliding down the nose of Peter Brown, one of the grandest old scholars of late antiquity, threatened to upstage his Library of Congress lecture. Brown is a recipient of the Library’s richly endowed Kluge Prize and on April 30 he delivered the obligatory prize lecture in one of the Jefferson building’s ornate meeting rooms. It was packed and you could have heard a pin drop as Brown walked the audience through a fundamental division in the way early Christian monks supported themselves financially. But oh, those glasses, a large, owlish pair of spectacles that kept sliding down to the very tip of his nose. He’d push them up every so often, and down they’d come again, threatening to fall off his face. The Irish-born scholar who now teaches at Princeton is straight from central casting, with all the donnish eccentricities, wayward glasses and disheveled mop of silver hair.
His lecture reminded us that something we take for granted was not always so, that the tradition of religious communities working to support themselves was, in fact, a hard won battle in the history of spirituality. The map of the ancient, post-Roman world, of course, makes what we take as the center of civilization—Europe—really just a backwater. The real action was in the East, where communities of Manicheans and Syrian religious mendicants viewed the idea of work very differently. For the Manicheans, work was an all too materialistic intersection with a thoroughly corrupted world: It not only dirtied the hands, it dirtied the soul. For the Syrian communities, who relied on alms to survive, work was a reminder of man’s devastating fall from grace. Not for them Milton’s almost cheery send off to Adam and Eve: “the World was all before them, where to choose their place of rest, and Providence their guide…”
Brown cited a relatively recently discovered cache of Manichean documents, in which a woman is instructed to send oil to the religious elites as alms. This was part of a systematic laying up of spiritual treasure. Charity, it seems, was most perfectly dedicated not to what we might think of as the poor, but rather, the impoverished-by-choice religious elites. It also allowed them to keep the mind and spirit focused on prayer, rather than encumbered by work.
A very different tradition emerged in Egypt, where work was eventually celebrated as an essential part of the monastic order, a tradition that spread throughout Europe. This not only connected monks to each other in communities, it connected them to the world, and freed up the charitable impulse to be directed to the real poor. Brown didn’t belabor the consequences of this, but it clearly directed western spirituality away from ideas that still define some Eastern traditions: An ideal of disembodied, impoverished, mendicant religion that turns its gaze firmly upward and away from the world.
Oh yes. There was wine and nibbles afterward. And though Brown’s glasses departed his nose on a half dozen occasions, they never hit the floor. This guy’s a pro.