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Beyond Religious Dogmatics

Acseticism in Early Christianity

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The Christian views on asceticism start from the pages of the New Testament or even Jesus’ life itself when he, being, supposedly, unmarried proclaimed that anyone who would just look at a woman lustfully already commits adultery, which is a sin, not even mentioning the actual act of adultery. This kind of proclamation represents a higher degree of self-control and discipline that was very much appreciated among the early Christian community. Later, Paul repeats the message in the first letter to Corinthians Ch. 7 proclaiming and encouraging the celibacy as a better way of a holy Christian life. Unquestionably, sexual relations and marriage always were one of the central topics in the Christian lives not only among ascetics but also other more or less spiritually relaxed people. There were, however, other important elements of asceticism such as fasting, abstaining from luxuries of the world, certain types of food etc. Thus, Christian life, in the first 3 centuries was viewed as consisting mainly of certain outward exercises, rather than an inward spiritual experiences or a life of faith alone. The ideal of virtue was, according to the common percepts of the early Christian fathers, not so much to transform the world and sanctify it, as to flee from the world into seclusion, and voluntarily renounce property and marriage.

In the historical works and correspondence of the early Christian church fathers, we witness not only their concerns about a proper way of conducting Christian life in the light of increased numbers of the believers and the social and cultural diversity of Christian community in general, but also different degrees of self-denial and/or self-discipline. Thus, for Tertullian of Carthage, for instance, a former follower of Stoic philosophy before conversion into Christianity, the morality and the abstinence from the civil life of Christians are central points of his arguments. He reflects on Paul’s phrase about our bodily experience in his Apology (Ch. XLIII. – No Disparagement of Our Doctrine in St. Paul’s Phrase, Which Calls Our Residence in the Flesh Absence from the Lord) saying: “In the same way, when he says, “Therefore we are always confident, and fully aware, that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord; to disregard present life as we are only strangers in this world. Another figure offor we walk by faith, not by sight,” (2 Cor.:6, 7) it is manifest that in this statement there is no design of disparaging the flesh, as if it separated us from the Lord.  For there is here pointedly addressed to us an exhortation to disregard this present life, since we are absent from the Lord as long as we are passing through it—walking by faith, not by sight; in other words, in hope, not in reality.”[1] He, thus, argues  early Christianity, Tatian, professed higher degrees of Christian self-discipline declining such things as sexual relationship even in marriage and complete abstaining from alcohol saying: “ ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery,’ ever be properly addressed to souls, or even thought of in such a connection, since the difference of male and female does not exist in them, nor any aptitude for sexual intercourse, nor appetite for it; and where there is no appetite, there can be no intercourse; and where there is no intercourse at all, there can be no legitimate intercourse, namely marriage; and where there is no lawful intercourse, neither can there be unlawful desire of, or intercourse with, another man’s wife, namely adultery.” And about drinking: “I therefore admire those who have adopted an austere life, and who are fond of water, the medicine of temperance, and flee as far as possible from wine, shunning it as they would the danger of fire. It is proper, therefore, that boys and girls should keep as much as possible away from this medicine.”[2]

Thus, asceticism obtained different degrees of spiritual discipline in one place or the other and had also its social egalitarian characteristics in analogy with martyrdom when celibacy was one of the ways, first of all to free themselves from the obligations of marriage and family life and, second of all, as the ascetic women were equally respected with ascetic men, they could experience social and spiritual empowerment as the people who practiced asceticism were automatically brought to the roles of the authority and became a living sacrifices and the emblems of holiness for the Christian communities.

The understanding of ascetic life was developing in a slightly different ways in different cultural contexts. Thus, for example, Basil of Caesarea, who provided leadership for the monastic movement in Asia Minor, and whose rules became foundational for monasticism in the East, emphasized communal life over a solitary asceticism saying: “But a life passed in solitude is concerned only with the private service of individual needs. This is openly opposed to the law of love which the Apostle fulfilled, who sought not what was profitable to himself but to many that they might be saved”[3] referring to 1 Letter to Corinthians 10:33. While the story of life of a Egyptian hermit, Anthony, written by Athanasius of Alexandria who worked on integrating the monastic movement more fully into the church in Egypt, reflects another way of conducting ascetic life that is more cenobite and anchoritic that is concerned with the struggles with flesh over the soul. Yet, in another account, Diary of Pilgrimage composed by Egeria, we witness an already well-established notion of the pilgrimage to the Holy Land and certain remote types of the societies that associate with the monasteries: “we were received very hospitality by the monks dwelt there, and they offered us every courtesy”[4], while in the other first accounts we witness the attempt to establish the doctrine to follow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography:

-    John W. Coakley, Andrea Sterk, Readings in World Christian History, Vl. 1 Earliest Christianity to 1453 (New York: Orbis Books, 2004)

-    Philip Schaff, edited by Allan Menzies, D.D., The Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325: Ante – Nicene Fathers Volume. III, Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian (Michigan: Grand Rapids), Digital Version:  http://www.ccel.org/ccel/Schaff/anf03.i.html

-  Philip Schaff, edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, The Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325: Ante – Nicene Fathers Vl. II, Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (American Reprint of the Edinburgh Edition), Digital Version: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf02.v.iii.xxiii.html?highlight=sexual#highlight

                                               

 



[1] Philip Schaff, edited by Allan Menzies, D.D., The Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325: Ante – Nicene Fathers Vl. III, Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian (Michigan: Grand Rapids) Digital Version: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/Schaff/anf03.i.html

[2] Philip Schaff, edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, The Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325: Ante – Nicene Fathers Vl. II, Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (American Reprint of the Edinburgh Edition), Digital Version: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf02.v.iii.xxiii.html?highlight=sexual#highlight

http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf02.v.iii.ii.ii.html?highlight-drinking#highlight

[3] John W. Coakley, Andrea Sterk, Readings in World Christian History, Vl. 1 Earliest Christianity to 1453 (New York: Orbis Books, 2004), p. 145

 

[4] John W. Coakley, Andrea Sterk, Readings in World Christian History, Vl. 1 Earliest Christianity to 1453 (New York: Orbis Books, 2004), p. 159

 

 

Created December, 2007