A Brief History of the Order of St. Cyprian-the-Athlete by Eleanor Arnason

This story originally appeared in Tales of the Unanticipated #8, edited by Eric M. Heideman, and published by the Minnesota Science Fiction Society. It is “reprinted” here by permission of the author.

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A Brief History of the Order of St. Cyprian-the-Athlete

by Eleanor Arnason

Cyprian the Athlete (who is not to be confused with Cyprian of Carthage, the bishop and martyr) was bom in Athens in the middle ofthe fourth century A.D.

According to an early story, he was the only son of St. Theodora the Lachrymose, who was famous for the tears that she wept without ceasing day and night, out of grief for the sins of the world. The story tells us that one cause–among many–for her grief was the behavior of Cyprian. As a young man, he ignored religion entirely and devoted himself to wrestling.

In all likelihood the story is wrong. There is another account of the life of Cyprian, earlier and less well written, that most scholars consider more reliable. According to it, the motherof the saint was not Theodora, but an ordinary woman of no education, though she had a certain native wit which her son inherited

St. Theodora, of course, was extremely learned. She wrote over a hundred hymns and homilies, all of them unreadable due to the blotching and streaking caused by the tears she wept even as she wrote. Though no one could read them, her manuscripts were revered as holy relics. In the course of time, they were cut into tiny pieces and distributed throughout the Eastern Empire. Many people were cured of terrible diseases by the writings of St. Theodora, and one virgin in Antioch was raised from the dead by the prayers of her parents and half a page.

Cyprian achieved fame as an athlete. He won the laurel crown at Olympus on at least one occasion, most likely in 374. Later he became a coach. His specialty was training young men to wrestle, as he had, at Olympus. His students, we are told, did well.

At the age of forty Cyprian was converted to Christianity or, if he was already a Christian, began to take the religion seriously forthe first time. Cynics have connected his change of heart to an edict of the Emperor Theodosius the Great. In 394 Theodosius banned all pagan ceremonies. Included among these were the games at Olympus.

Cyprian was out of a job. He turned to the Bible and to the writings of the Holy Fathers. In 398 he founded a religious order, which was known–much later–as the Strenuati or the Little Musclemen of God. The rules of the order were derived, in large part, from the training program he had used as a wrestler and a coach.

According to Cyprian, the flesh was best subdued by push-ups and running in place. Exhaustion eliminated the problem of worldly thoughts. For who can think of women or money, when sweat pours down the body and every motion is a cause of pain?

Cyprian also advocated bathing. This brought him into conflict with many holy men and hermits, who argued that bathing was a kind of luxury, an indulgence of the body. To them filthiness was next to godliness and a good infestation of lice was something to be thankful for. What better way to mortify the flesh?

Nonsense! said Cyprian. Dirt and lice make one conscious of the body, for the dirt itches and the lice bite, and it becomes impossible to think of anything except the need to scratch. Also, the saint argued, the stench of an unwashed Christian was a constant distraction for his neighbors who could not concentrate on Heaven when their noses reminded them of Earth.

Far better to bathe, especially in a mountain stream where the water is ice cold. For there the bather–or rather, the worshipper–became entirely numb. It was the perfect way to escape the temptation of sensation. Not even Satan could inflame a block of ice, and when the worshiper climbed out of the stream he felt the wind. It whistled down off the high peaks, reminding him of the power of God and the necessity of clothing. Thus, by experience, he was taught reverence and modesty.

In spite of these arguments which have–for us now–a certain bizarre charm, Cyprian made more enemies than converts. He retreated to Arcadia with a small band of followers. There he established a monastery, The monks kept goats and cultivated grapes and olives. They ate the traditional diet of that part of Greece: bread, cheese, olives, garlic and wine. It was good plain sustaining food.

They worked out every day. Cyprian was especially interested in the lifting of heavy weights–for example, large blocks of stone. Exercising in this manner the order built a church.

The church was expanded in the late tenth century, and the mosaics done then are among the glories of Byzantine art. The nave has a sky of blue glass, dotted with gold stars. Along the sides, above the pillars, are angels who exercise in green fields among palm trees. In the apse is Christ, seated in a referee’s chair. Before him kneel St. Cyprian and an unknown man, apparently the benefactor who paid for the mosaics. Christ holds out two wreaths made of laurel, the ancient emblem of victory. Above the Redeemer, angels with multicolored wings do side-bends.

The order survived in obscurity. It managed to avoid taking a definite position on the great iconoclast-iconophile controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries. This was due in large part to the efforts of Cyprian’s great successor, St. Anastasius the Abbot, also known as St. Anastasius the Wily. A book of his aphorisms has come down to us and has recently been translated into English.

It was Anastasius who said, “Good reflexes decide the match.” And he said, “God in Heaven makes the rules, but here on Earth the emperor is the referee.”

After the fall of Byzantium in 1453, a number of monks migrated from Greece to Italy, where the Renaissance was in full swing. The monks were appalled by the worldliness of the Italian nobility and by their lack of fitness. “‘But,” as one monk wrote, “better a fat Christian than a lean Turk.”

They ended in Tuscany. There they found a powerful patron: Ludovico di Medici. Ludovico, who is not well known to history, avoided banking and politics, the two occupations traditional to his family. The former, he maintained, was sordid, and the latter was dangerous. Instead he devoted himself to religious philosophy. He was something of an expert on the early fathers of the church. St. Cyprian fascinated him.

Ludovico built a church for the order. It was done in the style of the Italian High Renaissance. The monks, we are told, disliked it intensely. But photographs taken in the early 20th century show a handsome building, made splendid by the frescoes in the Medici chapel: the Legend of St. Cyprian, painted by II Rosso Fiorentino. Especially fine is–or rather, was–the scene of Cyprian before his conversion, wrestling in the gymnasium in Athens. The saint was portrayed as a huge man with bulging muscles and almost no clothes.

The monks were shocked. “Immodest!” they cried.

“But true to history,” replied Ludovico.

“There is truth and truth,” the abbot said. But then, remembering the precepts of Anastasius, he refrained from further argument. Instead he praised the build on Cyprian. Here was an example of fitness! Here was the faith that moves mountain–or anything else heavy–made solid and visible!

Ludovico was satisfied. The monks avoided the chapel. The church and the frescoes survived until 1944, when both were destroyed by Allied bombers.

For a while the monastery in Tuscany prospered. By 1520 it had become a kind of early health spa. The great families of Florence sent their degenerate sons there. The young men were fed good plain food and taken out on long runs through the countryside, guarded by muscular monks who made sure they did not escape or succumb to any temptation.

In the middle of the 16th century the monastery attracted the attention of the Inquisition. Ludovico was dead. So was the old abbot, the prudent Eugenius.

The new abbot, Gregory, was not at all prudent and he lacked entirely the wiles of St. Anastasius. He was asked to explain the peculiar ideas of Cyprian. He did so bluntly and truthfully and with holy zeal. Abbot Gregory died in prison. Many of his monks recanted and became Franciscans. A few returned to Greece. “For,” as one monk wrote, “better a lean Turk than a lean Jesuit.” A few more–including Gregory’s successor, Anastasius the Lesser–fied to France and then to the Netherlands. There, in Amsterdam, they established a new monastery and baffled the Dutch, who had no idea what kind of Christians these strange men were.

Unfortunately for the order, the natives of the Netherlands were more interested in money than in good health. The new spa did not prosper, and the Dutch branch of the order lasted only one generation.

In Greece the order of St. Cyprian survived, though it never did especially well. In the early 19th century a number of monks joined the fight for Greek independence. They did this secretly, in the clothes of laymen. But the Turkish government discovered that the monastery was involved in the Greek cause. Troops were sent with orders to massacre the monks and destroy the buildings.

Everyone left except for Abbot Theophilus, an ancient pious man, who waited for the soldiers in his beloved church, at the altar, on his knees.

The soldiers entered, gasping for breath after their long climb up the mountain.

The abbot heard the noise they made. He rose and went around the iconostasis, the screen that hid the altar.

Now the soldiers could see him. They shouted in their own language and flourished their swords. Then they ran toward the venerable abbot, who awaited death calmly, secure in the belief that God and Greece would triumph. For these soldiers were very badly out of shape. In the end the fit would always win, “Two things lead to victory,” according to St. Anastasius. “Good training and quick thinking.”

Well, reflected Theophilus, the Greeks had one of the two, at least. And the Turks, it was clear, had neither.

The soldiers gasped and staggered. Then they stumbled. Then they fell. They were being wrestled down by invisible presences! In a moment or two the soldiers were all on the floor, tightly held by head locks or half nelsons.

“Glory be to God,”crie Abbot Theophilus. “The victory is always His.”

“Amen,” said the presences, who remained invisible. They lifted the Turks and carried them off. According to legend, the soldiers were never seen again–not on the mountain of St. Cyprian, anyway. No other soldiers came to bother the monastery. Theophilus lived to be a hundred and thirteen, revered by all.

Toward the end of the 19th century a young shepherd boy came up the mountain. He entered the monastery as a novice. After a month or two he ran away, discouraged by the cold baths and constant exercise. He ended in America. The boy was named Stavros Andropolis. As everyone knows, he became one of the great Hollywood producers. It was due to him that D.W. Griffith made the silent epic Helen of Troy. His company–Hellenic Superbo–was responsible for many of the best early talkies: for example, the comic masterpiece Three Greeks in Brooklyn (1931).

Andropolis was famous for his love of St. Anastasius, whom he quoted often, usually when he was about to make a deal that robbed somebody blind. Although he became rich, he remained–in many ways-a simple shepherd lad, pious after a fashion or maybe the word is superstitious.

When he died in 1937 he left his entire fortune to the Order of St. Cyprian–with one provision. The order must move to California.

The monks, unwilling to pass up a deal this good, complied. In 1939 they packed everything and moved to the suburbs of Los Angeles. There they established El Rancho Cypriano, the famous health resort. They built–as well–the church of St. Anastasius, where they worship to this day, dressed in the costume they adopted after they came to America: grey sweat pants and a grey sweatjacket with a hood. On their feet they wear running shoes, either white or grey. In recent years they have preferred Nikes.