Resistance to Christianity

Chapter 21: The Spirituals, Also Called Messalians or Euchites


Unlike Arianism, Donatism and Monophysism – which, born from rivalries of nations and Churches, might better be characterized as schisms rather than heresies – the movement of the “Spirituals,” who were called Messalians or Euchites by their adversaries, was only Christian in appearance, under which was expressed the [common] people’s taste for life, so easily diverted by dereliction, leveling and destructive asceticism, and religious or political fanaticism.

By combating the rigor of the New Prophecy, as it was perpetuated by Novatian, Donatus and the Circumcellions, the Church of Rome used a political wisdom of which many popes showed themselves to be the worthy inheritors. Though it was protected by its status as a unique religion, Catholicism did not win the game. Except for a minority, the Greco-Roman aristocracy was reluctant to banish from its everyday life the pleasures of the bed, the table, nay, even the bloody games of the circus. Unlike the “Virgin Church” dear to Tertullian and Donatus, the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church required a strict obedience to its authority and its representatives by those who accorded the sacraments and the absolution of sin. In all the accommodations thus rendered possible – and the specifications of Augustine of Hippo soon came to clarify things – nothing prevented a Roman citizen inclined towards hedonism from embracing Catholicism. Priests, bishops and popes, moreover, only put the brakes on their ordinary ribaldry after the Sixteenth Century, that is, after the cold shower of the Reformation, which washed the Catholic stains from the primitive Christianity, the true Western Christianity, which was anti-Semitic and puritanical: the New Prophecy.

But the anti-Montanism of the Church also expressed the voice of wisdom. The trinity, by virtue of which the Church – as much as the Spirit – mediated between God and the Son, who was incarnated in the weakness and corruption of human and terrestrial nature, also fulfilled a primordial function: it avoided the confrontation with dualism; it set right the balance between good and evil, oppression and revolt, repression and relief. The reverse of Puritanism, it was unbridled license. In this sense, the “Messalian” movement constituted the antithetical continuation of Montanism.

In his Hymns Against the Heresies, which were composed in Edessa between 363 and 373, Ephrem [the Syrian] spoke of people who gave themselves up to a free morality under the cover of devotion. They called themselves pneumatikoi, “Spirituals.” Their adversaries called them the “Messalians” (from the Syrian word m’salleyane, “those who beg”) or Euchites (from the Greek euchitai).

Epiphanius of Salamis mentioned their presence in Antioch around 376 or 377. He described them as vagabonds who refused to possess any goods, slept in the streets of the town, men and women mixed together, rejected all forms of work and contented themselves with begging and praying.

Their initiator was Adelphius, but other names were linked to a current that was scattered everywhere, that continued to perpetuate itself, and that (one can plausibly conjecture) rallied together a great number of people who were drawn more by ephemeral sensual pleasure than by the prize of a hypothetical beyond – indeed, this current never ceased to trace its furrows underneath the prudent appearances of religious obligation. Dadoes, Sabas, Hermas, Symeon and Eustathius of Edessa have been mentioned by Photius, Michael the Syrian, Bar-Hebraeus and Philoxenus of Mabbourg.

In the 380s, Flavian, the patriarch of Antioch, persecuted the Spirituals and chased them into the provinces of Lycaonia and Pamphylia, where the bishops condemned them around 388. In 390, Flavian of Antioch went further by anathematizing all of the Messalians, despite Adelphius’ attempts to defend their cause.

The persecution of the Spirituals was extended into Armenia. Letoios, bishop of Melitene, ordered the burning of monasteries into which the Messalian doctrine had penetrated. (The recidivists were condemned to having the hollows of their knees sliced open.[1])

Around 405, Atticus, the patriarch of Byzantium, insisted on the necessity of expelling the Messalians. Later on, Nestorius was associated with the struggle. In 428, the imperial police were tasked with intervening against the Spirituals and making them outlaws. In 431, the Council of Ephesus ratified the measures previously taken, without great success, it would seem.

In the second half of the Fifth Century, the Spirituals united around Lampetius, a priest ordained around 460 by Alypius, the Bishop of Caesarea of Cappadocia. According to Theodore Bar Konai, Lampetius founded monasteries, located in the mountainous region between Cilicia and Isauria, where men and women lived a joyous life. (Note that in the Third and Fourth Centuries, the various ascetic Christianities condemned the women who lived with bishops, priests or deacons, and also exercised sacramental functions, under the name “Agapete,” agapetai, “the darlings.” The Celtic tradition, which was relatively favorable to women, introduced the Agapetes into the new Christian cults of Ireland and Britain, in which, during the Sixth Century, there still existed monasteries composed of female hosts, cohospitae, who conferred the sacraments without, for all that, renouncing their [feminine] charms. The Arthurian legends often evoked them.[2] Around 150, The Shepherd by Hermas gave an allegorical meaning to their double nature as libertines and holy “virgins.”)

There were other such monasteries in Egypt, where Lampetius enjoyed the protection of Alpheus, the Bishop of Rhinocoloura (El’Arich, near the Palestinian border). How could they not revive the memory of Carpocratus in Alexandria? But the patriarch of the city [El’Arich], either through nonchalance or sympathy, was content to demand an oral repudiation of their errors from these “uncultivated” people.

The actions taken at the beginning of the Sixth Century by the patriarch of Antioch, and his refutation of a work by Lampetius titled Testament, showed the persistence of the movement, which was also being fought by the Monophysite Churches of Syria.

One found Spirituals in Constantinople towards the end of the Sixth century, grouped around a moneychanger named Marcian, from whom came the name Marcianites, according to Maximus the Confessor.[3] Photius, the author of a Ninth Century study of the Messalians, spoke of contemporary heretics with whom he occupied himself.


In its most radical aspects, the Spirituals’ doctrine was devoted to justifying the practice of a freedom that guaranteed them the feeling of having attained perfection and impeccability.

The Church principally reproached them for their scorn of the sacraments and ecclesiastical hierarchy. Men and women lived in the streets or in monasteries, were animated by the grace of having vanquished the demon that was in them, and thus acted with the assent of the angels and the Spirit.

From the remarks reported by their adversaries came elements of a philosophy that especially aimed at justifying the pleasures of the way of life that they had chosen.

The fall of Adam had introduced into every person, from birth, a demon that dominated and pushed him or her towards evil. Baptism and the sacraments remained inoperative against such a presence. Only prayer – and here it was not a question of the Church’s prayers, but rather of continual and assiduous incantations – had the power to chase away the demon. Prayer had to be accompanied by a severe asceticism, of a duration sometimes extended to three years. It ended in a state of [impassive] equanimity – apatheia – that realized the union with the Spirit. The Spiritual thus recovered Adam before the Fall or, if you prefer, the Christ, who was – according to Origen, Paul of Samosata, Donatus and Nestorius – the [form of] man assumed by the Logos. (Note that certain Messalians were thus passed off as Nestorians or Monophysites, before being denounced and chased away.)

According to the testimonies collected by John of Damascus [in the late Seventh or early Eighth Century], the expulsion of the demon and the union with the Spirit evoked the orgasm of amorous union. The Spirit, similar to fire, made man into a new being; it recreated him because “fire is the demiurge,” fire is the ardor of desire and the Great Power of life, as it was for Simon of Samaria.

The Spiritual was thereafter invested with the gift of prophecy; he was similar to the Christ and did not sin in whatever he did. The recourse to fasting, asceticism, mortification of the flesh, discipline and the instruction of the soul fell into disuse.

Lampetius mocked the monks whom he saw deliver themselves up to abstinence and penitential clothing, because they thereby showed that they had not acceded to perfection. Nevertheless, the Antoine-and-Macaire[4] crew did not make room for his efforts in the daily struggle against the demon of lust that the Master of the Altar Piece from Isenheim would express with so much pictorial happiness.[5]

Lampetius himself lived in pleasure, dressed in delicate clothes and unveiled to his disciples the path to perfection, which did not lack attractiveness. “Bring me a beautiful young woman,” he said, “and I will show you what holiness is.”[6]

Proclaiming themselves to be blessed [and happy], the Spirituals inverted the project of holiness that had been pushed to extremes by the Montanists and that the anti-Montanist Church exhibited in the enclosure of ascetic monasticism, in its hyperbolic martyrology and in its calendar, wherein they [the martyrs] replaced the daimon that, according to the Gnostics, governed every day. (With respect to ascetic monasticism, recall the ascetic, Catholic monks who, in Alexandria in 415, let off steam by flaying alive the beautiful Hypatia, a philosopher and brilliant mathematician.) Furthermore, the Spirituals’ pre-Adamite Christ was everything that would displease a Church (which they managed to do without, if one can judge from the singular path to salvation that they pursued.).

Practicing a sovereign freedom, the Spirituals rejected work, which they held to be shameful activity. They advised against making alms to the poor and needy so as to reserve for themselves, the truly poor in spirit, such resources, which their bodies needed to sustain themselves, since they, having rediscovered the purity of Adam, could wed Eve in complete Edenic innocence.


Borborites, Coddians, Stratiotics, Phemionites

The heresiologues harbored a clear propensity to multiply, under a variety of names, the opinions that contravened their doctrines or those of the Church of Rome. They intended to demonstrate by this [profusion] the extent of the confusion and incoherence that reigned from the moment that their views were set aside. It seems that the movement of the Spirituals was thus fragmented into many names, such as Stratiotics, Phemionites and Coddians (from the Syrian word codda, “platters,” which designated “those who eat apart”).

The term Borborite merits some attention. Victor Magnien recalled that the borboros (or “quagmire”) symbolized the impure life in which the uninitiated dwelled.[7] Plotinus identified the Borborites with the third category distinguished by a number of Gnostics: the Hylics, the prisoners of matter.

The Borborites were condemned by a codex issued by Theodosius II. According to Philostorgius, Aëtius was reduced to silence by a Borborite.[8]

Ecclesiastical opinion gave to “Borborite” the meanings “dirty, filthy, uncultivated.” In 480, Lazarus of Pharb spoke of people who were “ignorant and mocked all beliefs.” He said that one could apply the following proverb to them: “For the pig’s fiancé, a bath in the cesspool.”[9]

Was it a question of uninitiated people submitted to the perfect Spirituals and striving through total destitution to attain the revelation of the Spirit, from which absolute freedom proceeded? Or did the term [“Borborite”] quite simply designate the immense majority of the beings, tormented by the difficulties of existence, who enjoyed the simplest pleasures without being preoccupied with some divinity other than fortunate or unfortunate chance?


[1] Runciman, Le Manichéisme médiéval, op. cit., p. 31.

[2] Translator: cf. the “Castle Anthrax” scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), in which “eight- score blondes and brunettes, all between sixteen and nineteen-and-a-half” ask Sir Galahad to spank them and them let them perform oral sex on him.

[3] Maximus the Confessor, Scolies sur la hiérarchie ecclésiastique de Denys, in P.G., 4, 3192b.

[4] Translator: Antoine the Great and Macaire of Pispir lived in the Fourth Century and are considered saints by Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

[5]Translator: The Isenheim Altarpiece is an altarpiece sculpted and painted by the Germans Niclaus of Haguenau and Matthias Grünewald, respectively, in 1512–1516.

[6] Photius, edited by Henry, p. 39.

[7] V. Magnien, Les Mystères d’ Eleusis, Paris, 1938.

[8] Philostorgius, Epitome Historiarum, III, in P.G., LXV, 501-505.

[9] Quoted by Runciman, op. cit., p. 34.


(Published by Fayard in 1993. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! May 2013. All footnotes by the author, except where noted.)

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