Andrew Crislip

How Ancient Egyptian Christians Healed the Body and Soul; Q&A with Andrew Crislip

Andrew Crislip, Ph.D., is regularly the first person in hundreds of years to read the words and thoughts of people so ancient and forgotten, even the language they used to communicate has been dead for centuries. His research focuses on the history of Christianity in late antiquity, particularly focusing on the history of monasticism and medicine in Egypt. He also studies Coptic papyrology, meaning the edition and interpretation of texts preserved on papyrus, parchment, ostraca, and wood.

Crislip is VCU’s Blake Chair in the History of Christianity and the author of “From Monastery to Hospital: Christian Monasticism and the Transformation of Health Care in Late Antiquity,” “Thorns in the Flesh: Illness and Sanctity in Late Ancient Christianity” and coauthor of “Selected Discourses of Shenoute the Great: Community, Theology, and Social Conflict in Late Antique Egypt”.

Why do you focus on Egyptian Christianity? What’s different about Egypt?

One of the reasons that Egypt is so important to Roman history has little to do with the culture but more to do with the environment of Egypt. South of Cairo Egypt gets very little rain, and apart from the Nile Valley, the soil is arid and very dry so documentation gets preserved in Egypt where it does not get preserved in Turkey, Greece, northern Italy, Roman Britain, and Spain. All of these places where we had a longstanding Roman culture, things just rotted away there. That’s one of the reasons why I and so many other people are drawn to Egypt – because that’s where the data is.

Your work focuses on the connection between Christian monasteries and healthcare. Why does this interest you and what have you learned?

One of the innovations of this period that became extraordinarily influential, not just in Egypt or the Roman Empire but throughout medieval Europe and up to the birth of the modern period and the Reformation, was the development of monasteries. One of the things that I noticed when reading early monastic literature was the centrality of concerns about sick monks. Mainly, how do we take care of these people? For the first time we have hundreds, maybe even thousands, of unrelated people living together in this sort of new family. One of the things that I found, especially within these highly organized monastic communities, was that they developed new ways of taking care of people. They created infirmaries – an architectural place where all the sick would go and remain until they recovered. Infirmaries existed in military camps but they weren’t available more broadly. This was new.

Did infirmaries in monasteries see illness as a symptom of sin?

Surprisingly, monastic leaders insisted that talk of sin be kept out of the infirmary. Ordinary monks were not to accuse one another of sin when they got sick or weak. However, my second book looked at a different aspect of that phenomenon, in which the lives of famous monks are examined. It does turn out, especially when we deal not with ordinary rank and file monks but the lives of famous monks, that their own sickness becomes much more problematic. Early writers of saints’ lives insisted that if you were a holy man or a holy woman, that would manifest in a sanctified body. That didn’t always work, and so we start to see later a reaction in which monks, biographers and theologians try to make sense of illness in a more complicated way. Christians began to see sickness itself as a sign of holiness. One of the things that monks do is they control their bodies, and so they do this through prayer, through mental control, through controlling their diet, sleep, and sexual activity. When the monk is sick, that sickness itself does the work of asceticism. It does the work of controlling the body. When you’re sick, you don’t eat. You don’t want to have sex. You don’t have bad thoughts necessarily – you’re thinking entirely about your body and its processes.

We still have a strong connection between healthcare and the church today, from miracle working priests on television to church-operated hospitals that don’t provide emergency abortion or contraception services to women. How do you think the connection between healthcare and Christianity has changed since late antiquity, and how has it stayed the same?

There’s probably not a direct lineage from what we see today back to the third and fourth centuries, but you do see a lot of the same themes and tensions recurring. If we look at contemporary America, a lot of those types of religious healing–the faith healing that you mention – are actually very, very old. They may have fallen out of favor and then recurred, but a lot of what I see in the types of Christianity that are growing and thriving today are among the most ancient forms of the Christian practice, and would have been very familiar in the first, second, third and fourth centuries. Not necessarily in an infirmary setting, but all over the place. For example, you mention people laying on hands to heal; we have evidence of this from The New Testament. All of the gospels, especially the earliest gospel Mark, showed Jesus first and foremost as a healer. He heals demonic possession and he does it in ways that are similar to what you see today in Christian communities around the world.

What are you currently working on?

My recent work has been on healing the body, and my current research is on healing the soul. Specifically, I’m looking at the ways Christians changed understandings of psychology and especially the emotions in late antiquity. One of the things that we see among monastic writers and others in the fourth century and on is an increased interest in controlling thoughts and understanding the role of emotions in the religious life. One of the most famous impacts of this is an author named Evagruis. He developed a way of dividing up all of the bad thoughts that would come to monks – and these are thoughts that come from demons trying to distract the Christian. He divided up these evil thoughts into a system of eight: anger, fornication, greed, sloth, sadness (that’s the one I work on the most because it doesn’t fit well in our understanding of sin), vainglory, pride and gluttony. He divided all thoughts in this way and taught monks ways to recognize, “oh that’s a thought of anger” and to tell that thought, “get away.” It’s a form of emotional and cognitive therapy, a way of healing the passions that becomes very, very influential. The goal of his psychological practice was to develop a state which he called apatheia, meaning a freedom from emotional suffering. He wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages about this, much of which was lost in its original Greek form because he was later declared a heretic. But his followers took this east to Mesopotamia, Persia, China, and west to Ireland and France where it became the Seven Deadly Sins in the Medieval Period.

Written by Megan Schiffres