The literature of late ancient Christianity is rich both in
saints who lead lives of almost Edenic health and in saints who
court and endure horrifying diseases. In such narratives, health
and illness might signify the sanctity of the ascetic, or invite
consideration of a broader theology of illness. In Thorns in
the Flesh, Andrew Crislip draws on a wide range of texts from
the fourth through sixth centuries that reflect persistent and
contentious attempts to make sense of the illness of the ostensibly
holy. These sources include Lives of Antony, Paul, Pachomius, and
others; theological treatises by Basil of Caesarea and Evagrius of
Pontus; and collections of correspondence from the period such as
the Letters of Barsanuphius and John.
Through close readings of these texts, Crislip shows how late
ancient Christians complicated and critiqued hagiographical
commonplaces and radically reinterpreted illness as a valuable mode
for spiritual and ascetic practice. Illness need not point to sin
or failure, he demonstrates, but might serve in itself as a potent
form of spiritual practice that surpasses even the most strenuous
of ascetic labors and opens up the sufferer to a more direct
knowledge of the self and the divine. Crislip provides a fresh and
nuanced look at the contentious and dynamic theology of illness
that emerged in and around the ascetic and monastic cultures of the
later Roman world.
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