ENTHUSIASM AND THE MESSALIANS – THE DEVIL WAS IN THE SNOT
BY DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
The major goal of enthusiasm in the public and private sectors today is growth in production and consumption. The progress has been phenomenal since the industrial revolution. An alien from a spiritually inclined planet would think humans had been fatally possessed by demons after observing our race to produce and consume ever more and our frantic effort to pave over most of the world while cluttering up the rest.
That is, “enthusiasm” is definitely restricted to interests leading to the purchase and possession of mass-produced goods and services. Many people are possessed by their possessions, as if some sorts of spirits resided therein. Yet the power elite denounce those who oppose such demonically inspired gross materialism as the bedeviled and accursed “forces of darkness,” or as mentally ill and in dire need of serotonin reuptake inhibition.
Spirituals disagree with the secular authority’s definition because genuine enthusiasm is about God and nothing less. After all, enthusiasm means “god-possessed,” and not greed-possessed or lust-possessed.
Anyone uneasy with the hyperactive and demented society of consumption may seek solace in one church or the other, hopefully to be possessed by peace if not by the Holy Spirit. Yet that retreat is no sanctuary to the lone wolf who knows that modern churches are contaminated and possessed by the apotheoses of the social disease in question. Wolves are, like humans, hierarchically organized, but they too have their anarchists, the lone wolves. The lone wolf knows his god can only be found in Natural Religion, in a forest under a banyan tree, or perhaps in a desert cave, or at least in an unregulated monastery.
Organized religion does not provide the viable alternative that the lone wolf, who seeks peace in the “solitary death,” unconsciously craves. He knows his freedom is not in a monastery where obedience to church authority is the divine rule. No, he longs for the cave from which he descended eons ago to herd and farm and to found towns. But the town no longer wants the wolf who founded it, except in an iron cage. The church would also cast him out as a heretic, or keep him locked in a dungeon to be periodically tortured by the Iron Maiden.
The lone wolves, who originally founded religions and now threaten them, are for the most part ascetics who forswear production and consumption in order to obtain union (yoga) with their god. They might not make a go of it entirely alone: they might gather together in secluded retreats. Independent individuals and groups were perceived by the Roman Church as a serious threat to its authority, for yoga or direct communion with the deity, enthusiasm or god-possession, takes the individual out the centralized Church’s sphere of authority.
Decentralization, tolerance, plurality of views, religious freedom can be detected in India under the Hindu umbrella religion, but not in the Roman Church. The Church, as it gained power, did everything in its power to bring enthusiasm to heel, to bring monks together in monasteries to support and obey the dictates of the Roman authorities. It encountered many difficulties along the way with heretics, people who had the audacity to “choose” for themselves.
One such curious group of heretics was the Messalians, a sect that supposedly originated in Mesopotamia about 360 A.D. “Messalians” is Syrian for “those who pray.” Our knowledge of their doctrines and practices is derived solely from the discriminatory denunciations of the authorities, wherefore we may examine the behavior of the Messalians in that reflected light, as presented in the works on heresy penned by Theodoret, Timothy Constantinople, and John of Damascus:
Prayer is the only way to salvation. Zealous prayer drives out the indwelling demon each person was born with (including the Apostles) ever since the first parent Adam. Only prayer can root out the indwelling Satan that urges the person do evil.
Messalians jump over demons cast out of their runny noses, or in spit, or sometimes in the forms of fire, smoke or serpents. They shoot at the demons with their fingers as if their fingers were arrows. Constant praying keeps the Messalians from talking as wildly as they are wont to do. When the praying casts out the demon, they achieve Apatheia (apathy), the reception of the Holy Spirit, which is a marriage to the Bridegroom of Heaven, just as a woman receives a man.
Once a Messalian has achieved Apatheia, which he feels and perceives as the Holy Spirit dwelling within, his body is freed from passion and his soul is set free: he needs no further restraint or teaching. Any wantonness or licentiousness thereafter is not sinful because it is done without passion.
The Messalians see things to come. The actually see the invisible Trinity as One. They see the Cross of Light. They foretell the future and engage in fortune-telling frauds.
Manual labor and giving to the needy are anathema to Messalians, for Messalians are the “poor in spirit,” the truly “spiritual” beings. They sleep most of the day, pretending to be in prayer. They sleep to dream, dream to prophecy, and, being deceived, prophecy to deceive.
They do go along with the sacraments from time to time, perhaps to fit in without hypocrisy to their faith, for they believe such things do no harm or good.
John of Damascus said, “Among them they have contempt for the churches and their altars, as it were fitting for ecclesiastical ascetics not to attend synaxes and yet hold prayers in their oratories: for they say that such is the power of their praying that the Holy Spirit appears perceptually to them and those instructed by them….Those who come to them without any fruit of repentance from various sins, without authority of priests, without the stages which are prescribed in the ecclesiastical canons, they promise to take away every sin immediately, only if someone undertakes the prayer which is much spoken among them, and thoughtlessly becomes an initiate of their trickery.” (De Haeresibus)
References in sacred literature were made to the Messalians of Mesopotamia in the 370s, in Asia Minor in the 420s and 430s, and the Council of Ephesus condemned them in 431. Writings about them circulated widely thereafter, playing a key role in the Byzantine monastic revival of the 8th and 9th centuries, and in the Hesychast movement of the 14th century.
The actual identity of the Messalians is controversial. The designation was applied to anyone who was unenthusiastic about manual labor and sacrificial ordinances, anyone who placed emphasis on the experiential, emotional aspects of religion and who believed prayer could make the soul divine and immortal. They reportedly wandered from place to place, slept in the streets, and took up no occupations except their fervent prayer.
So-called Messalians were persecuted. For instance, Letoius, Bishop of Militene, burned monasteries where this form of Quietism was found, “driving the wolves from the sheepfold.” Many suspected Messalians were put to death by the Christian magistrates.
As enthusiastic as we may be about the freedom of our individual spirits, let us bring this ancient example of enthusiasm to a close with a silent prayer for the Messalians In the Name of the Past, the Present, and the Future, as One.
THE CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA, New York: Encyclopedia Press 1911
Columba Stewart, WORKING THE EARTH OF THE HEART, The Messalian Controversy in History, Texts, and Language to AD 431, Oxford: Clarendon: 1991