Lessons of the Desert Transcestors

Earlier this week, I told the stories of two gender-non-conforming monks of the early church. If you haven’t read about Marinos and Hilarion yet, you can do so here.

In both stories, the actions of these gender-non-conforming monastics reveal a commitment to their broader community. Marinos and Hilarion became fully incorporated into the communal life at their monasteries. Scholar D. Martin describes the process of joining a monastery: “When a young monk sought entry to a hermit community, he approached a senior monk and said, ‘Abba, give me a word,’ thereby entrusting himself to the guidance of this spiritual father.” In this way, Hilarion gained the trust of his monastery’s leadership. The legend recounts that “[Pambo] visited [Hilarion] twice every day. And the words which the saint Apa Pambo spake to [him] for the profit of [his] soul were translated into Greek.” Once this community membership was solidified, Hilarion kept the interests of the community above his own. When confronted with the choice to out himself or risk ill repute on his fellow monks, Hilarion chose to preserve his monastery’s reputation.

By contrast, Marinos kept his secret even when outing himself would have made life easier. Faced with accusations, Marinos could have cleared his own name by revealing his assigned gender, as Hilarion did. Instead, he silently accepted exile from the community — surely no easier a punishment than he could have expected otherwise. Throughout his life, Marinos gained a reputation for maintaining “obedience, silence, and humility.” In doing so, he followed the exhortations of many desert fathers. “Obedience with abstinence gives men power over wild beasts,” said Abba Anthony. Another unidentified hermit implored, “Take care to be silent . . . you will not fear the attacks of demons.” As Marinos’ acquiescence demonstrates, the monks considered their own will subordinate to the will of God.

Monastics also showed their obedience by rejecting worldly glory. Hilaria came from a very powerful family. Her journey was inspired by the word of God through scripture: “. . .  from the catholic epistle: ‘The wealth of this world is like grass and hay’; . . . and also from the Gospel: ‘Whosoever forsaketh not all that he hath, cannot be my disciple.’” Hearing those words spoken from a pulpit, she resolved to present herself as a man in order to join the ascetic life of a monastery. This sentiment is certainly not exclusive to Hilaria’s experience. Amma Syncletica, at approximately the same time as Hilaria, warned her followers: “Just as it is impossible to be at the same moment both a plant and a seed, so it is impossible for us to be surrounded by worldly honor and at the same time to bear heavenly fruit.” The monastics removed themselves from the distractions of the world in order to draw closer to God.

Gender-non-conforming monastics served as a divine bridge between men and women. Though Hilarion was not generally known to have been assigned female at birth, he was referred to as “Hilarion the eunuch.” Eunuchs were themselves a gender-non-conforming identity. Hilarion’s status as a perceived eunuch granted him special privileges. When his sister arrived at the monastery and needed personal care, the monastery’s leaders decided to “trust her to Hilarion the eunuch, he is able to take a woman into his house.” The monastics, separate and holy, offered their services of healing to the world; as a gender-non-conforming person, separate and holy, Hilarion offered care that others could not.

The lives of the desert monastics, including Marinos and Hilarion, reveal how Christians were expected to behave in the world during the early centuries of the church. They felt called to pursue a parallel life, away from the trappings of society. In this withdrawn community, bound together by shared desire for holiness, the monastics pursued humility, obedience, and asceticism. Their dedication to each other and to the pursuit of God led many, including gender-non-conforming monastics, to be canonized as saints. Throughout the ages, Christians have looked back to all of the desert monastics for their unique perspectives and wisdom.

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