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.

Blogging Benedict: Entering the monastery

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

According to the Rule of St Benedict, ch. 58, entry into the monastery goes as follows:

  • A few days at the guest house for the persistent
  • Two months as a novice
  • Read the Rule. Can leave if they don’t like it.
  • Six more months. Read the Rule as above.
  • Another four-month testing period.
  • Finally admitted

The three central (famous!) vows:

  • Stability
  • Poverty
  • Obedience

In making these vows, the new monk is stripped in the oratory and clothed in monastic garb. Thus everything he was is gone and everything he is is now invested in the community. He has not even his own clothing. He has no money to provide for himself. He has vowed not to leave. And he has vowed to surrender his own disordered will to that of the community under its abbot.

This is a radical commitment.

Few non-monastic Christian communities today have such radical commitment. Varieties exist in some Anabaptist communities, of course. Most of us don’t belong to those. Most of us belong to congregations that would barely notice if we were gone.

What if we were to invest in stability? This is certainly part of the Benedictine freedom of simplicity, isn’t it? Force yourself to stick with your local church, not merely in spite of the people who annoy you or the preaching that you dislike for one reason or another or the hymns/songs that aren’t your favourites, but specifically to fall in love with those people, that preacher, and find Jesus in that music.

That would take humility, as opposed to just leaving. Not that we should never go, but that we should more often stay instead.

What if we were to invest in the ideal of poverty? This one is possibly harder. Imagine that all your goods belong to the whole Christian community (cf. Acts 2). Then give cheerfully in the collection plate. Share with others. Look for opportunities to do good. Have people over to your house in rich hospitality. Living like that (which I certainly don’t do!) would probably revolutionise how we love others.

What if we were to invest in obedience? This one is probably hardest for our culture. Obedience has been abused, certainly. But Richard Foster, in Celebration of Discipline, makes the point in his chapter about service that choosing to serve others means they can’t walk all over you because you have already willed your act of service. Their own evil hearts may seek to abuse you, but you cannot be abused, for you already wish to serve. That said, I actually do believe in boundaries; if your acts of service for others are harming your family life, for example, you need to find new ways of serving.

What if we were this radically invested in our churches?

Would it make us into better disciples? Would it make more disciples? These are the two questions I am now considering as I read through my notes on Benedict.

Saint of the Week: St. Matthias the Apostle

Do you ever wonder about St. Matthias and what he did before and after his one and only appearance in the Bible, when they cast lots and choose him as the replacement for Judas Iscariot in Acts 2?  So does most of the world, as it turns out.

Regarding his life before his apostolate, we can assume he was among the 70 whom Jesus sent out because in Acts Peter says that Judas’ replacement must have been with them from the beginning.  His Wikipedia entry cites Clement of Alexandria as saying that St. Matthias was possibly the same person as Zacchaeus (Lk. 19:1-10).

Some agreement surrounds his preaching enterprise beginning in Judaea (Wikipedia and abbamoses agree).  This makes sense, since all of the apostolic activity began in Judaea before spreading throughout the known world.  According to one tradition, poor St. Matthias was stoned to death in Jerusalem.  Although not entirely unbelievable, there comes to be a certain sameness to the stories told about lesser-known apostolic characters, so this may be pious fiction.  According to Hippolytus he died of old age in Jerusalem.

Another and more exciting tradition places him in Aethiopia following his stint in Judaea.  Aethiopia most likely did not mean Ethiopia, though.  Wikipedia says that Nicephorus thinks “Aethiopia” is actually “Colchis” on the Black Sea, now in Georgia (the famous destination of Jason and the Argonauts).  The basis for this, I reckon, is the presence of his alleged remains there; although, if those are St. Matthias’ remains, then whose remains did St. Helena allegedly pick up?  Regardless, I have no idea why someone would think that Aethiopia would be Colchis of all places.  Aethiopia, speaking Hellenically, is the place of the burnt-faced people and is always south, usually south of Egypt and Libya, thus Nubia/Sudan/Ethiopia, but never north of Greece at Colchis.

Anyway, so St. Matthias brought the Gospel to Aethiopia, wherever that is.  Not only is he in Aethiopia, he’s in the city of man-eaters in Aethiopia, in fact.  The tradition that asserts the cannibals includes the apocryphal Acts of Andrew and Matthias, although the country is merely identified as “the country of the man-eaters” — perhaps Colchis?  Are Georgians cannibalistic? (I don’t think so.)  Said Acts are interesting because they are clearly related to the Old English poem Andreas (in OE here, in Mod English in the Everyman book Anglo-Saxon Poetry) in which St. Andrew the Apostle rescues St. Matthew from a city of cannibals in Mermedonia, not Aethiopia.  In fact, most of the manuscripts say the Acts are of Andrew & Matthew, but the earliest says of Matthias (see CCEL).

St. Matthias (or St. Matthew or no one at all, given that anthropophagy is rare and the story is of dubious origin) was imprisoned by the man-eaters and lined up to be their next feast.  He prayed for deliverance, and Jesus brought him St. Andrew on a ship (so maybe Colchis?).  Andrew gets there, sneaks into the city, and finds Matthias sitting in his prison cell singing (ala Sts. Paul & Silas).  Then the two apostles performed some miracles, culminating in Matthias being transported in a cloud along with Andrew’s disciples and showing up on a hill where Peter is preaching.  Andrew stayed behind to perform a few more miracles, debate with the Devil, and convert the man-eaters.

The Acts do not tell us about what St. Matthias does next.  At some point he died, possibly in Jerusalem, possibly in Georgia, possibly in Africa south of Egypt and Libya.  It’s all rather vague, revealing the paucity of information we have about first-century Christianity outside of the New Testament.