The professionalisation of asceticism in late antiquity

Antony the Great, ascetic par excellence; detail from a 14th-15th-century painting of the BVM with saints in the Capitoline Museum

In a couple, or a few, weeks I am going to be giving some online seminars about church history for my churches. I’ll make sure this blog is kept informed. The theme tying together the seminars will be spiritual disciplines and the expansion of Christianity. At the same time, I am attempting to forge a book about St Benedict’s Rule. As these two forces collide in my mind, I can’t help but think about the history of monasticism and its relationship to the ante-Nicene church.

And its relationship to non-monastic followers of Jesus — this post could just as easily be the appropriation of discipleship by monks in the Later Roman Empire.

John Cassian gives an account of the origins of monasticism that, although historically worthless as Columba Stewart notes in Cassian the Monk, is nevertheless of interest when we consider the definition of a monk and of asceticism — for this is how Greg Peters uses it in The Monkhood of All Believers — and, from there, the actual origins of the Christian ascetic tradition.

According to Cassian, the first Christians were cenobitic monks — that is, monks who lived in community with shared property — citing Acts 2 as his evidence. And this Acts 2 parallel will continue to be used in descriptions of the monastic ideal for much of the western ascetic tradition. But, sighs Cassian, this didn’t last. As more people converted, things got lax. It was up to the fourth-century monks to bring discipline, true asceticism, back.

Except, of course, when they did it, asceticism was appropriated by a distinct set of Christians who lived lives set apart from the increasingly Christianised population of the Roman Empire (and its successor states as well as easterly neighbours — the non-monk ascetic Ephraim the Syrian finds himself portrayed as a monk in later Syriac literature; East Syrian monasticism is its own flourishing form of asceticism in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages).

Cassian is right that the primitive church was essentially ascetic, although we may quibble about calling them monks. This is the contention of David Bentley Hart in the notes surrounding his translation of the New Testament. Hart believes that the New Testament authors actually expect members of the Christian community to abandon all of their possessions and lead lives of simplicity and prayer (in a nutshell; I’ve not read his notes, only about them — I may have details wrong). However far that may actually go, it is certainly the case that simplicity is certainly a mark of the apostolic lifestyle, and many Christians did abandon all to gain everything (St Clare’s laudable exchange).

Other early Christian literature bears witness to an ascetic, even rigorist, ideal. I do not recall all of the details, but the Didache expects Christians to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays and to pray three times a day. The Apostolic Tradition seems to expect members of the community to pray all seven canonical hours and to attend teaching at church before work when it is available.

Clement of Alexandria, who comes between Didache and Apostolic Tradition, believed in the simple life: simple food, simple dress, not owning fancy dishes and furniture. Eat in moderation. Study the Scriptures. Pray. These are a few of Clement’s recommendations; he believes in training, askesis, of the body and mind to be able to ascend to apatheia and in the state of dispassion to encounter the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Other figures have expectations for Christian living surrounding food, dress, personal property, and prayer, that we today would consider ascetic, such as Tertullian and Origen. These expectations are coupled in Origen with a belief that a contemplative life and meditation on Scripture can help us enter the Cloud of Unknowing and encounter the impassible God.

To what extent these ante-Nicene ascetics represent mainstream Christianity is hard to say. Well, they represent mainstream thinking. How most Christians lived for most of history is actually hard to judge. But this strand of thought is taken up by Antony and his associates and soon becomes the preserve for a special, higher class of Christian: the monk.

The monk, for these purposes, is the professional ascetic who goes above and beyond the requirements of the “normal” Christian. He or she is single-minded in devotion to God and does special things for Him. The rest of us simply have to go to church and follow the Ten Commandments — or whatever else emerges from the systems created by institutionalised Christianity.

But the idea that we are all called to fast (truly fast, not simply abstain from certain foods), to pray the canonical hours, to give away unnecessary possessions, to be single-minded in our pursuit of God — this is lost. We non-monastic lay people are there for moral instruction, not ascetic labour.

This is perhaps a gross oversimplification, but I believe something along these lines happened to Christian discipleship in Late Antiquity, within the Empire as well as outside it, and persisted throughout the Middle Ages.

2 thoughts on “The professionalisation of asceticism in late antiquity

  1. Thank you for your thoughts and post. I would be interested in knowing when you are going to publish the book you mention. I am presently half way through my workbook on monastic principles for lay people. I follow the Desert Fathers through to Celtic monasticism (900AD). My background is in Christian counselling for over thirty years, and my present involvement in modern day monasticism in the community. I am not asking people to stand in freezing water in prayer, even though there are suggestions it was to get rid of lice. I am taking the principles of loving God, the two sides of self, thoughts, humility, prayer and purity vs pollution and applying these principles to be used today. Each chapter has two sets of Exercises; one for the lay person and deeper exercises for the mature Christian. I believe we have lost the skills of the ancient monks and need to rediscover them. The workbook is meant for everyday Church attendees who would like to know more on loving God. The Exercises are designed in a way that an individual can follow them or a church group. The exercises can run for years especially completing the introduction exercises each chapter then moving onto the mature (I call these Waymarks) exercises.
    Keep up your wonderful posts. It remains an inspiration for me and I look forward to your muses! Pax Bruce

    • I will keep people posted on this blog! I have to finish writing the book first, of course, let alone find a publisher, and then edits after that! So we’ll see. I think there is a lot of wisdom amongst ancient monks, east, west, Italy, Ireland, so I hope your book finds a good readership, too.

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