An exploration of a little understood way of life that has been followed since the beginning of time.

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ASCETICISM (Christian)
The term, ‘Asceticism’ is derived from the Greek word askesis meaning ‘exercise’ or ‘training’, and was originally a term used to describe the arduous training of a soldier or an athlete. It was adapted by the philosophic school of the Cynics, and later by the Stoics, as a rigorous discipline used to combat vice and develop virtue, and to this end it was employed by many Greek philosophers. The discipline of Asceticism first rose to prominence within Christian monastic communities in the Egyptian and Levantine deserts during the late third and early fourth century; although it had been practised in varying degrees by Christians long before.

Many of the principles embodied in such communities as the Essenes and the Therapeutae, were also central to the teachings of the early Church, being clearly reflected in the words of Jesus: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”( Matt. 19:21), and, “If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mk 8.34) and “…whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). Are these not clear directives for the inclusion of some form of Asceticism in the life of a Christian?

In the first three centuries, Christian Asceticism found expression in various ways, such as through fasting, abstention, celibacy and in the preparation for martyrdom. However, if there was a place where Asceticism could be said to have found a place in the new world order of the Christian Church, then it would have been among the monastic communities that were forming in the Egyptian and Levantine deserts in the late third and early fourth centuries. Furthermore, if there was a focal point, a conduit through which the Greco-Roman traditions of Asceticism might have passed, then it was through the Christian Catechetical School of Alexandria under such figures as Pantaenus, Clement of Alexandria and Origen.

It is thought by some that the Christian Catechetical School of Alexandria was founded by S Mark whose influence within Alexandria was clearly significant. However, Eusebius describes the school being governed in the late second-century by Pantaenus, a converted Stoic scholar[1]. Whether the school was started by S Mark, or given prominence by Pantaenus, the Christian Catechetical School of Alexandria became a central institution of Christian learning and discipline as well as a leading centre of the allegorical method of biblical interpretation. Pantaenus was succeeded as head of the school by Clement c. 180; a post he maintained until the persecution of 202.

“The Old Harbour of Alexandria, Egypt (now known as the Eastern Harbour). From aRip Van Winkleaas Travels in Africa & Asiaai, published by Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., New York, 1882.”

Clement was born of non-Christian parents in the middle of the second century and died before 215. He sat at the feet of several Christian teachers, the last of who was the Alexandrian, Pantaenus, a Stoic philosopher who, according to Eusebius, had converted to Christianity.[2] Against the Gnostic criticism of ‘faith’ Clement vigorously upheld the sufficiency of ‘faith’ for salvation – ‘Faith’ and ‘knowledge’ he affirmed, were not incompatible but mutually necessary.

He maintained that the image of God, described in Gen. i. 26, is the Divine Logos, the archetype of the human mind, and quietly affirmed Philo’s position that the two accounts of creation in Genesis describe the making of the intelligible and sensible worlds. Likewise, he attacked those who imagine that the divine image in man means something physical.[3] He is understood to have been succeeded by Origen.

As a young man, Origen became a pupil of Clement at the Catechetical School in Alexandria.[4] Origen had been well educated by his father in the Liberal Sciences, Greek literature and the Scriptures, before his untimely martyrdom in Origen’s 18th year[5]. Nevertheless, his education served him well as he practised his philosophical manner of life as a teacher, a profession that necessitated his presence in the world rather than withdrawing from it.

Another point of interest is that he studied Greek philosophy in the lecture room of Ammonius Saccas, with whom Plotinus was later to study for eleven years. Ammonius is an important yet mysterious figure; all that is known about him comes directly or indirectly from Porphyry, who describes him in his life of Plotinus[6]. It is probably through these sources (Clement, Pantaenus, his Father, and Ammonius Saccas.) that Origen first encountered Asceticism, doubtless of a Stoic nature.

Stoic Asceticism taught a method of self-control and fortitude as a counterbalance to the carnal appetites and passions, whereby one may achieve sufficient clarity of mind to become aware of the Logos (universal reason). Whatever the direct influence might have been, Stoic ethical thought shaped the Christian askesis of the Alexandrian Catechetical School, and clearly made a lasting impression upon Origen’s life.

Eusebius informs us that even as a youth Origen disciplined himself in fasting, limited his sleep, which he invariably took on the floor, embraced poverty, ‘persevered in cold and nakedness’, went barefoot and abstained from alcohol.[7] He is also notorious for supposedly castrating himself as a youth inspired by Matt. 19:12. Of course, the story may be a later slur given undue credence by Eusebius[8]. Origen was pivotal figure, both as an exemplar of ascetic piety and as a theologian. According to Origen, the single most important challenge to be addressed by those who would participate in Christ’s life was how to think about, and what to do with, the ‘tent’(skene) that was the body; that is, how to relate the challenge of embodiment to otherworldly visions and aspirations[9].

Origen understood the visible world to be the result of the fall of ‘soul-ness’ into an embodiment of materialism that is destined for corruption. Human beings are constituted as spirit, soul and body. Such a constitution sets in motion the struggles between the spiritual and material realms. These struggles are played out in the soul housed in the body. Yet Origen also argued that the body is not intrinsically evil and that the soul is not merely a neutral entity housed by, or clothed in the body.

The problem is that the interests and needs of the body and those things associated with it distract the soul from its primary focus upon the spiritual realm, which is why the body is often characterised as “death” or “corruption”, and the soul (nous) as that which can produce the virtues of otherworldly existence, namely righteousness, self-control, wisdom[10]. The soul can be made perfect only by God’s will, yet must nevertheless freely choose to discipline the body in order to cooperate with the process of being made perfect.

Thus, the Christian ascetic must embrace with two fundamental components, the first is self-denial, following the teaching of Jesus: “If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.[11]” The second is engaging in the spiritual work, embodied in the words: “see first the kingdom of God”. What then is the spiritual work but the labour of seeking our return to the pristine condition of being within the presence of God – the kingdom of God.

We might consider the Biblical narrative of ‘The Fall’ as an historical event taking place in time, in the PAST; thus we are spiritual beings who have been sent into exile as a punishment for our transgression. The only hope for our restoration being our compliance with the Torah, the ‘Law of Moses’, or by having Faith in Jesus Christ and living a Christian way of life, thereby earning our redemption at the end of the age.

Alternatively, we might consider ‘The Fall’ as an allegory of our PRESENT condition; viewing ourselves as creatures whose ‘spiritual’ potential is embedded in the body; like a spiritual seed lying dormant in the material earth/body – waiting for the right conditions to emerge (A Spiritual Spring?). Both of these scenarios may be deduced from the biblical narrative of Gen. 3.Various methods of ‘rectification’ (first option) or ‘quickening’ (second option) have been applied over the course of time.

One method is through ‘Mortification’, which is an ecclesiastical term used to describe the action of ‘killing’ or ‘deadening’ of the flesh and its lusts through ascetic practices: (see Rom. 8. 13; Col. 3. 5; and Gal. 5. 24), particularly through the infliction of bodily discomfort and even bodily hurt:

  • Romans 8:13-14; For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.

  • Colossians 3:5; therefore, put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.

  • Galatians 5:24; And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

Such is the practice of asceticism, either spiritual, by a) internal curbing and killing love of self in all its manifestations through denying it even blameless action; or b) physical, by means of self-inflicted bodily austerity[12]. A great deal of emphasis was placed on the former ‘a’, in the early part of the first millennium, especially in the monastic communities that followed the examples of the Desert solitaries of Egypt and the Levant. As time passed, and especially as the second millennium progressed, the latter ‘b’ became more evident. However, it is true to say that throughout history both have had committed advocates.

Fasting and abstention from pleasure are among the means of mortification. Its chief aim has ever been the breaking of carnal thinking and habitual behaviours to lead the soul into holier ways[13]. The asceticism of the desert fathers, although similar in practice to that of the Stoics etc., was directed towards purification not by separation, but through unification – the unification of the body, soul and spirit in Christ.

For the solitary monk this askesis was a means of training the whole person in a spiritual discipline, central to which was overcoming the demands of the carnal appetites and engaging in prayer according to the instruction of St Paul, who in the fifth chapter of his first letter to the Thessalonians advocates that all who aspire to the spiritual life should “Pray without ceasing”. Fulfilling this undertaking required the aspirant to relinquish all but the most essential of physical needs and to renounce all needs of the personality beyond that necessary for the spiritual life. It was to this end that the solitaries engaged in the life of an ascetic.

As the name implies, solitaries generally lived alone, shunning human company to concentrate their entire lives in engaging with the spiritual work according to the imperative of St. Paul. Many of them lived in caves whilst a few built small stone shelters known as ‘cells’. Some, regardless of the climate, lived in the open throughout the year, a few even going naked. The majority, however, wore humble clothing, frequently wearing garments that even beggars would refuse to wear.

As time passed and more formal communities were established, a recognisable dress code emerged, although the condition of such clothing did not necessarily improve. Silence was another fundamental of the solitary life. Even in communities it was common practice for the solitary to refrain from speaking to anyone and then only to reply when spoken to. It is a discipline still adhered to in many monasteries to this day.

Inevitably, the monastic ideal of renunciation consisting of an ascetic life devoted to prayer and meditation evolved over the course of time, but although it was driven by its own irrepressible energy it was nevertheless shaped in different ways by the rapidly changing world in which it had taken root. What began as a migration of a few independent solitaries into the Egyptian desert very quickly became a mass movement of spiritually hungry people. Drawn together by an irrepressible spiritual ideal these proto-monastics gathered together to share in a common life, and great exemplars such as Anthony, Macarius and Pachomius took the lead in enabling their embryonic communities to establish social mechanisms that fulfilled their personal and communal objectives.

to be continued . . . .

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To read about the emergence of Christian Monasticism in the Levant see:

[1]Historia Ecclesiastica, 5. 10-11.)
[2]The Cam Hist. of Early Grk and Medieval Phil. p. 168.
[3]Ibid., p. 170.
[4] Eusebius, Eccles. His. Bk 6. Ch. 6 & The A-Z of Origen, John McGuckin, p.80, SCM Press, 2006.
[5]Ibid., Bk 6. Ch. 2.
[6]The Cam Hist. of Early Grk and Medieval Phil. p. 182
[7] Eusebius, Eccles. His. Bk 6. Ch. 5
[8]Ibid., 8.
[9]A-Z of Origen, John McGuckin, p.64, SCM Press, 2006
[10]Ibid., p.65.
[11] Mk. 8.34
[12]The Cath. Encyc. Dic. p. 332 – ‘Mortification’
[13]The Oxford Dic. of the Christian Church. P. 942 – Mortification.

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