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.

Virtual communion: Christ and the means of grace

This morning, the Free Methodist Church I attend celebrated virtual communion. The pastor admitted to not being sure about what it means theologically, but he wanted to do it at this time, to celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection through the sacrament of Holy Communion. So we all had our tiny cups of grape juice and bits of bread at home.

I’m not sure about this theologically, either.

And I don’t know what John Wesley, who had a high view of the sacrament and recommended receiving it weekly (as often as possible, in fact), and would receive it daily during Christmastide, himself, would have thought, either. His sermon “On the Duty of Constant Communion” is worth reading, though!

Nonetheless, a few thoughts that I had about doing this ran as follows.

At the most basic, if we set aside the questions of Real Presence and what a sacrament is, Holy Communion — we can all agree — is a memorial of Christ’s precious death and glorious resurrection. Therefore, even if someone were to definitively prove that there was no mystery in the bread and juice I consumed this morning, no special grace or Presence of the Lord, it would still service as a vibrant and tactile reminder of our salvation.

That alone might make it worth doing, so long as we aren’t cheapening the sacrament in doing this. (Are we?)

My next thought, however, tells me that, in fact, Holy Communion, even from a symbolist or memorialist position (which I do not hold), is never “just” bread and wine, and never “just” a remembrance. Through the enacting of the recapitulation of the Last Supper and recollecting the body broken and blood shed, in reading and praying the very words of Scripture, the words of the Word, we encounter Him. He meets us.

And in receiving bread and wine in faith, we encounter Him. He meets us, enters us.

Now, is it the same as when we are truly the ecclesia, the assembly of God’s people, constituted precisely in being taken out of the world and gathered together in one place and, as Christ’s mystical body, mystically consuming His body? No, I don’t think so. I’m not sure I can articulate how it is different.

Different isn’t wrong, though.

Taking up dear John Wesley again, he preaches in The Means of Grace that there are three chief means of grace:

  1. Prayer
  2. Reading the Bible
  3. Holy Communion

He says:

By “means of grace” I understand outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.

In a service of virtual communion, we are engaged in at least two out of three means of grace. So when we eat that bread and drink that wine, when we hear our minister pray the words of sacred Scripture, the words of institution from Our Lord Himself, when we pray the other prayers — I think we meet with Jesus.

Reading Clement of Alexandria, in fact, I am realising that the Church Fathers are not always uniform in their interpretation of Scripture (no surprise), and I also realise the polyvalence of certain passages, especially John 6 — “I am the bread of life,” etc. I cannot, at this stage of church history and raised an Anglican, I cannot read John 6 as anything but Eucharistic. Clement of Alexandria, I have found, reads this sometimes as Eucharistic, sometimes as about encountering the Word in Scripture, sometimes about meeting Him in prayer.

All three of Welsey’s means of grace are means of encountering Jesus as the Bread of Life from John 6, as far as Clement is concerned.

I have also noticed that the mystic and ascetic Evagrius Ponticus also sees encountering Christ at prayer as equal to meeting Him in the Eucharist. Furthermore, Origen also believes that we can meet and commune with Christ in Scripture as well as we can in the Blessed Sacrament.

So, at this weird moment in history, when virtual communion is all we can get — Jesus will be there with us, in us, through us, for us.

Taste and see that Lord is good. (Ps. 34:8)

“if cast on shores of selfish ease or pleasure I should be…”

Clement of Alexandria, Protrepticus (Exhortation to the Heathen), ch. 11, says,

 the serpent allegorically signifies pleasure crawling on its belly, earthly wickedness nourished for fuel to the flames

Whether or not we agree with this allegorical interpretation (I believe most of us believe the serpent to have been either literally or allegorically the Devil), this interpretive moment should give us pause in late capitalism, in late/post-modernity.

As in, press pause on Netflix. Pause as you sip your coffee/Coke Zero/craft beer/Darjeeling. Pause the game. Pause as you eat a nice piece of chocolate cake.

Not only does late capitalism provide us with greater leisure time than any other moment in culture or history, it also provides us with means of entertaining ourselves, some by going out during our leisure (play/watch live sports, live performances, art galleries, museums, the cinema, night clubs), some by staying in. We seek pleasure in food, drink, entertainment, etc., etc.

And certainly, pleasure is not wrong, per se. Is it?

I think that a lot of us not only have enormous opportunities for pleasure (despite our professed busyness — some are themselves the cause of some busyness) but also have them as a chief goal of our lives. Get a good enough job to earn enough money not only to live on now and in retirement, but to live comfortably, even luxuriously. Organise our time when not at work to get as much pleasure as possible — as little as possible of necessary chores and work, thankyouverymuch.

I know, as a job seeker, I fall into this way of thinking about work. And as a weary father, I fall into this way of thinking about leisure time.

But Clement of Alexandria perceives pleasure as enticement to disobedience and evil.

Clement of Alexandria is, in some ways, at the fountainhead of sustained Christian reflection on asceticism (actually, the New Testament is). Elsewhere, in The Instructor, he recommends eating plain, simple food, and dressing simply. Imagine that! We can cheaply and easily acquire exotic food (from a Canadian perspective, is it not remarkable that I eat bananas and drink coffee every day?). Clement urges us not to.

Why? Well, let’s turn to “I Feel the Winds of God Today” stanza 2:

It is the wind of God that dries
my vain regretful tears,
until with braver thoughts shall rise
the purer, brighter years;
if cast on shores of selfish ease
or pleasure I should be,
O let me feel your freshening breeze,
and I’ll put back to sea.

The shores of selfish ease are here and now in our comfy living rooms. The battlefield for our souls is not being waged in amphitheatres as pagans toss us to lions like Perpetua and Felicity (whose feast was this past Friday), nor at the stake like the Oxford Martyrs of the Reformation. It is being waged as we sit before our TVs, the blue light invading our hearts and minds, as we snack on unnecessary delicacies, and neglect prayer, Scripture, fasting, and almsgiving.

This, then, is why we need interiorized monasticism, to enter into the monkhood of all believers and gain the strength to fight selfish ease and pleasure, to find ourselves living, quickened, and basking in the glory of the risen Christ.

Clement on the transcendent God

From the Protrepticus, or Address to the Heathen, ch. 4:

Human art, moreover, produces houses, and ships, and cities, and pictures. But how shall I tell what God makes? Behold the whole universe; it is His work: and the heaven, and the sun, and angels, and men, are the works of His fingers. How great is the power of God! His bare volition was the creation of the universe. For God alone made it, because He alone is truly God. By the bare exercise of volition He creates; His mere willing was followed by the springing into being of what He willed.

Relevant to my recent post, wouldn’t you say?

Jesus is life

Today, I listened to a mix Spotify designed for me while I worked, and in it was included the Steven Curtis Chapman song, ‘Jesus Is Life’ — a song that was one of my favourites back in the day, in fact. Here is the song:

Chapman’s song is primarily focussed on how Jesus is my life, and this is right and good. Sometimes those of us who try to connect to the ancient ways forget that, while individualism is a problem, our faith is still part of our own individual lives as persons. Jesus is my life — the air I’m breathing, why my heart is beating, everything I’m needing, to quote the song. Truths not to be forgotten.

My mind went in a different direction, probably because I’ve been reading Irenaeus of late, and Justin is also on my mind. What these second-century Christian thinkers stir up in my mind is not only that that Jesus is ‘the very heart of everything I am’ (quoting Steven Curtis again), but, well, to cite the title of a book by Rowan Williams, Christ, the Heart of Creation.

The ancient Christians saw that Jesus was more than just a good teacher, and more than just your own, personal Jesus (the link is to the Johnny Cash recording). He is God the Word Incarnate. Jesus Christ is Godinflesh, the theaner, the Godman. Justin talks about how God the Word exists as a seed within the whole of creation, within the heart and mind of every man, as the rational, guiding principle of the universe. Irenaeus talks about how He is above and beyond, mighty to save.

John 14:6:

‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.’

Our Gospel is cosmic.

Thus Clement of Alexandria (late second century):

But let us bring from above out of heaven, Truth, with Wisdom in all its brightness, and the sacred prophetic choir, down to the holy mount of God; and let Truth, darting her light to the most distant points, cast her rays all around on those that are involved in darkness, and deliver men from delusion, stretching out her very strong right hand, which is wisdom, for their salvation. And raising their eyes, and looking above, let them abandon Helicon and Cithæron, and take up their abode in Sion. “For out of Sion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem,” —the celestial Word, the true athlete crowned in the theatre of the whole universe. What my Eunomos sings is not the measure of Terpander, nor that of Capito, nor the Phrygian, nor Lydian, nor Dorian, but the immortal measure of the new harmony which bears God’s name—the new, the Levitical song. –Exhortation to the Heathen (Protrepticus), ch. 1

Of course, this does not leave out the personal reality of Christ in us, the hope of glory. In fact, this is part of the bigness of our God and our faith. That same cosmic Person who orders the stars and quasars and quarks and quantum realities gives life to each of us. He is life for your dog and life for you — and not just making your heart beat and your lungs breathe, but your spririt quicken and your soul survive.

The fifth-century bishop of Ravenna, Peter Chrysologus writes:

What the soul is to the body is what Christ is to the soul. Without the soul, the body does not live. The soul does not live without Christ. As soon as the soul leaves the body, stench, corruption, rottenness, the worms, ashes, horror and everything that is loathsome to the sight take it place. When God leaves, immediately the stench of faithlessness, the corruption of sin, the rottenness of vices, the worm of guilt, the ashes of vanities and the horror of infidelity enter the soul, and there comes to pass in the living tomb of the body the death of the soul now buried. -Sermon 19.5, in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: John, Vol. 2, p. 125.

This Lent, let us cling to that Life that enlivens the whole cosmos so that He may give life to our souls.

Christ on the Cross as the Tree of Life, San Clemente, Rome

What is passionlessness (apatheia), Clement?

This Thursday, my students are reading some excerpts from Clement of Alexandria (saint of the week here) and Origen in Stevenson’s A New Eusebius as we discuss the rise of intellectual Christianity. These are very interesting documents that give us a bit of a view into the intellectual climate of third-century Christianity.

While the rise of Christian asceticism and mysticism are often popularly portrayed as having their roots solely in the so-called ‘Desert Tradition’ (ie. Antony and the Desert Fathers and Mothers), it is clear to me as I read Clement of Alexandria that his thoughtworld is the same, and he no doubts has precedents himself.*

The word that hit me in this regard as I was reading the assigned selections from his Stromateis was passionlessness — a rendering of apatheia, also sometimes rendered dispassion. Clement writes:

Such an one is no longer continent, but has reached a state of passionlessness, waiting to put on the divine image. (IV.22.138.1; Stevenson p. 185)

What is apatheia, though? It is a word with an unhappy future after Clement, getting caught up in the First Origenist Controversy of the late 300s and early 400s, and no doubt in the sixth-century Second Origenist Controversy. It figures large in the work of Evagrius Ponticus, the learned spiritual master of the Egyptian desert who has left a mark on Eastern Christian spirituality directly, on Western through our old friend John Cassian. Cassian renders apatheia into Latin as puritas cordis — purity of heart.

Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God (Mt 5:8), after all.

Here is one of Clement’s descriptions of his gnostic as he progresses:

He, then, who has first moderated his passions and trained himself for impassibility, and developed to the beneficence of gnostic perfection, is here equal to the angels. Luminous already, and like the sun shining in the exercise of beneficence, he speeds by righteous knowledge through the love of God to the sacred abode, like as the apostles. (VI.13.105.1; Stevenson p. 185)

Apatheia is the moderation of the passions, then. And what are the passions? The selections I see before me do not tell, but I’ve blogged about my own perspective thereon before. They are the unreasoning movements within and without that assail us and can lead us down different paths, at times bad ones. Evagrius and Cassian give us eight deadly thoughts, or logismoi, to watch out for as we go about our lives. Avoiding these thoughts and exerting our intellect in a good way will help us navigate the world of the passions.

… the perpetual exertion of the intellect is the essence of an intelligent being, which results from an uninterrupted process of admixture, and remains eternal contemplation, a living substance. (IV.22.135.4)

The goal of passionlessness is contemplation, is, as in Cassian, is the vision of Heaven:

At any rate, after he has reached the final ascent in the flesh, he still continues to advance, as it fit, and presses on through the holy Hebdomad into the Father’s house, to that which is indeed the Lord’s abode, being destined there to be, as it were, a light standing and abiding for ever, absolutely secure from all vicissitude. (VII.10.57.5; Stevenson p. 187)

I have not read the entirety of Clement’s Stromateis, but I do know the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) provide a good place to start for thinking on these things, as does Evagrius’ Praktikos and the Chapters on Prayer.

*If we believe Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, these are Platonic. Given Clement’s use of the terms gnosis and gnostic, I wouldn’t be surprised if he is not appropriating Gnostic ideas for (proto-)orthodox ends.

 

Justin Martyr and the Philosophers

Justin Martyr

As interesting and rich as Justin Martyr’s First Apology is, my reference point today is primarily the so-called Second Apology — which may actually be a detached bit of the First Apology or may be a different genre from apology altogether, written in 154.

In this text, Justin espouses the monarchy of God over the entire universe, the rule of humanity over the rest of creation, and the unjust enslavement of humans to the demons. One goal of Christ’s coming is to free humans from the demons.

Part of Justin’s demonic slavery is paganism — especially the poets but also pagan cultus, mythology, and, to some degree, philosophy.

Not being the most plugged-in reader of ancient philosophy, I cannot engage with everything Justin says in the Second Apology about ancient philosophy, and certainly not every time he engages with it, since some of those times will be oblique references and allusions.

Justin views philosophy, I think, as partly tied into the truth but also partly false, depending on the sect. Epicureanism, for example, he condemns at 12.5, whereas his views on Stoicism are mixed, and his appreciation of Socrates borders on that old idea that Socrates was a Christian before Christ.*

The cynical (not necessarily the Cynics) reader of Justin will assume that he speaks well of Stoics because he lives under a Stoic Augustus with two Stoic Caesares — Antoninus Pius and his two adoptive sons Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius; M. Aurelius being one of the most famous Stoic philosophers of all time.

Nevertheless, I think he sees real good in the Stoics, even if imperfect. He disagrees with the Stoic concepts of the whole universe — the god included — resolving into the same essence at the end and fate. The creation is always distinguishable from the Creator for Justin, and human beings have free will:

And this is the nature of everything generate — to be receptive of vice and of virtue. For none of them would be praiseworthy if he did not also have the power to turn either way. (6.6)

Justin approves of Stoicism largely in its ethical terms. He is not alone; the approval of Stoic ethics led some Christians in the fourth century to forge correspondence between Seneca and St Paul; that pagan persecutor of Christians, M. Aurelius, made his way into a calendar of Christian quotations possessed by my parents:

Let thy thoughts run not so much on what thou lackest as on what thou already hast.

This is wisdom, the sophia of philosophia. In other areas, Stoic recommendations for lifestyle remind me of early Christian ascetics, calling for moderation in food and dress, or of Clement of Alexandria (saint of the week here), as when Seneca defends his wealth by arguing that it is not wealth itself but slavery to it (see my post Who Is the Rich Man Who Will Be Saved?).

How is it that Socrates and the Stoics grasp some of the truth?

This is part of Justin’s famous Logos theology, the spermatikon logikon, the seed of rationality that is in everyone. The Logos is Christ, as John 1 has made clear to Justin. But Logos is not simply some hypostasised word or utterance. Logos is the order and rationality and logic underpinning everything in the universe, holding it all together as part of God (God Himself?) and at God’s behest.

As the rational part of the universe, human beings have the strongest, most conscious vision of the Logos. We have an inborn rationality, given us by God, to be able to arrive at certain conclusions. We all have some grasp of the higher Truth that orders all things. Therefore, pagans — whether Socrates or the Stoics — have access to God and can discover the truly moral and ethical life.

And, for Justin, the moral life is what being a Christian is all about. We put our faith in Christ through our own free will, and then we are able to live holy, moral lives, following his teaching, which, as his First Apology makes clear, is the highest morality of all.

Through this, Christ becomes the hope of the nations and the fulfillment of all religions and philosophies. All truth is His. Through this, we are able to read the pagans — Greek, Roman, Hindu, Zoroastrian — without fear and without surprise when the Truth jumps out at us. Through this, we can find common ground with our friends of other faiths or none, common ground that can hopefully lead to the abundant life promised to all who follow Jesus, both here and hereafter.

*Although, given that Justin denounces ‘sodomy’, his reading of Plato’s Symposium was either very creative or non-existent.