A long time ago a friend bought me a book called From the Holy Mountain. When I heard that Ben Hana had died I thought of it for the first time in some time. It is based around the author’s journey through the Middle East following in the footsteps of John Moschos, and aged monk, who set out wandering in 578AD in order to collect the wisdom of the desert fathers.
Throughout the book there are very interesting historical characters who lived outside society. The desert fathers. We would now call them crazy and send them to be assessed at a pyschiatric ward. Frankly, in some of their cases it would have been a really good idea.
One story revolves around an animal-loving monk from a suburban monastry outside Alexandria who not only feeds the monastry’s dogs, but also gives flour to the ants and puts damp biscuits on the roof for the birds. Other characters are rather more exotic… such as the monk Adolas who ‘confined himself inside a hollow plane tree’ in Thessaloniki, cutting ‘a little window in the bark through which he could talk to people who came to see him’.
Symeon the Stylite is another example that always stuck in my mind.
[Symeon was] a renowned hermit who had set up his pillar a few miles outside the city. From there he issued a series of dreadful threats and warnings to the faithful, calling them to repent and mend their ways.
Permanently sitting on a pillar in the blazing heat caught on, and at the peak of Symeon’s fame there were dozens of stylites, and thousands of pilgrims lining up to see them. After Symeon died a huge church complex was built all around the pillar which has always been the church’s response to asceticism: opulence.
Still, sitting on a pillar was better (possibly) than being a dendrite who took Christ at his word about being like the birds of the air, and lived their lives in nests up trees.
Hundreds of people took to living in the Judean desert as hermits. When one was asked why he lived in the heat and with the insects in the desert he replied,
I put up with the insects to escape from the what the scripture calls “the worm that sleeps not”. Likewise, I endure the burning heat for fear of the eternal fire. The one is temporary, but of the other there is no end.
I suppose I thought of these people in relation to Ben Hana for a few reasons. Firstly, the desert fathers were certainly out on the edge of society, and those out on the edge can cause society anxiety or seem to send a message. Those on the edge can become places where all kinds of things are projected. On the comment threads underneath news of the death of Ben Hana, and in old articles on him, you find people decrying him as a failure, a disgrace, lewd and immoral, others seeing in him something spiritual, others as a statement about capitalism, and alternative lifestyles, and freedom. The council and the justice system looked at him a certain way, as did the doctors at Ward 27. He touched people and offended people in equal measures.
Also, after death there is desire to memorialise. In words, in ceremonies, in offerings. Someone has suggested a statue. What would this statue mean? A statue of Ben Hana sitting on the corner of Courtney Place and Tory Street would be enigmatic. Probably a shrine. Just as the rich of Byzantium would not help the poor in general, they would spend money on the desert fathers, the stylites, the figures who seemed to transform suffering into something else for their audience if not for themselves. Ben Hana’s family have been overwhelmed with offers of help.
I must honestly record that I was not a fan of the blanket man. The conservative, prude in me disliked his presence. On the other hand I objected to the idea of him being cleaned up or moved on or assessed by mental health doctors which seemed to say more about my society than it did about him. His story seems complicated and confused and possibly there was real suffering for him at the wheel of a car. This is the only decent, full treatment of Ben Hana I can find. Complicated and confused.
I’m a little uneasy at what is being heaped on Ben Hana in death, but I wish him well.