Have you ever googled someone—or yourself, of course!—only to discover a whole lot of other people, in other countries and states, with the same name?
This can make pre-first-date research somewhat harder, and it’s especially common if we’re looking for someone named Jenny or Robert. Worse, if the person we’re trying to learn about shares a name with someone who once lived in a small town, and in that small town that person had a bad night that involved law enforcement, the whole story is now online. That single bad decision colors everyone of that name online, presumably forever.
Ammonius suffers from this same problem, albeit the 4th century variety. While the various forms of his name haven’t yet seen a resurgence in our era, they were quite common in his day. Several Christian and non-Christian scholars of the period share the name, and at least two of them knew Anthony of the Desert, and so within a hundred years, the various Ammoniuses are being confused with each other by people trying to sort through their teachings.
The Ammonius commemorated today has often had his life confused with someone else, but even this Ammonius largely has life boiled down to anecdotes. Some sources believe he’s most interesting for refusing to be ordained—he cut off his own ear, and threatened to remove his tongue if people didn’t stop trying to ordain him. We’ve all badly wanted to turn down a job we didn’t want, even if we didn’t go to such lengths, so the story makes him immediately relatable. It’s not that different, though, from someone who once stole a pickup on a slow Saturday night to take it joyriding and got caught. Looking up the name gives the story, but neither story tells us much about the person—what Ammonius loved, how he took his coffee, the joy his friends took in seeing him.
Others love the idea that he persuaded his wife to become an ascetic with him, and they each ultimately led separate monastic communities. This suggests not so much an unhappy marriage as a total rejection of the Roman way of life with its coercive family units and cultural requirements. Ammonius is notable in helping create a space for others to do this, too, because his community formed quite early and inspired others to do the same. Yet, this story, dutifully recorded on Wikipedia, tells us very little about him. Did his wife come up with the ascetic thing, and he took credit? Did their love for each other evolve over the years, inspiring one another in their career and vocation? This would be much more revelatory information.
There’s a saying about him, too, in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, where Ammonius asks Anthony why Anthony gets to be the more famous of the two. Anthony replies, “It’s because I love God more.” Ouch. Imagining googling yourself, and the only story online is the one where your best friend points out your worst flaws.
As we commemorate Ammonius today—his refusal of ordination, his pioneering of a spiritual as well as social order, his own struggles with loving God—I think we should also commemorate how rich the lives of our fellow Christians are and how rarely we see them clearly. We so often boil saints down to an anecdote, or miracle, or moment. We worry about whether there’s a patron saint for our particular need—a parking space, selling our home, curing cancer—but sometimes, this simply feels like using other people. Saints, too, are people—afraid of spiders, big fans of sunsets, lovers of God.
I am deeply moved by a t-shirt my partner owns with a quote from Bryan Stevenson, an advocate and lawyer and defender of people on death row: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” This is true of people on the internet. This is true of our saints. This is true of our criminals. This is true of us.
Ammonius rejected easy summaries of who people said he could be, who he should be. Perhaps, in his honor, we can do the same today.
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