16

THE ASCETIC ODYSSEY

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A clean body and clean clothes betoken an unclean mind.

THE ASCETIC PAULA, A ROMAN ARISTOCRAT, TO HER NUNS1

As should already be clear, the spread of Christianity was a much more complex and tortuous affair than conventional histories of Christianity allow. Not least of the complexities was the contrast between the new wealth of the church, exemplified by one of the greatest and most costly building programmes in European history, and the complete renunciation of wealth by the many individual Christians who sought refuge in asceticism.

The idea of disciplined training, askesis, was intrinsic to the ancient world, from the preparation for games or practice as a rhetor to the clearing of the mind for profound philosophical study. In a sense the victory odes of Pindar, the great poet of the fifth century B.C., which suggest that a winning athlete comes close to the gods through his success, celebrate the same attributes required by the Christian hermit who tortures his body so as to come close to his God. In both cases, discipline eventually brings the possibility of a spiritual transformation. Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:24 actually makes the comparison between training for the games and for the Christian life, in the latter case for “a wreath which will never wither.”

Asceticism is a complex phenomenon, and there are many issues raised by the adoption of an ascetic life. First there is the implication that the mind or soul has a relationship with the body (and that they are indeed separate entities), and that this relationship can be manipulated for some higher end, normally through the mind or soul “subjugating” the “desires” of the body. From the philosophical point of view Plato offers one of the clearest rationales for asceticism. The soul and body are distinct. The soul is made up of three parts, reason, spirit (emotion) and sensuality (desire), and when the “sensual” part of the soul aligns itself with the body the individual is prevented from reaching any kind of “higher” state. In the Phaedo Plato complains that the body “fills us up with lusts and desires, with fears and fantasies of every kind and with any amount of trash, so that really and truly we are never able to think of anything at all because of it.” So the body must somehow be subjected to the reasoning part of the soul, if there is to be any kind of philosophical progress. The association of renunciation and the achievement of a higher state of being is at the heart of the ascetic experience.2

Plato’s approach cannot be separated from other contexts in which asceticism appears in the ancient world. Continence and emotional restraint were widely valued, especially among the Roman elite, and they covered any form of excess passion, any behaviour which demeaned a man in front of his peers. This is why Stoicism proved so popular; it provided a philosophical framework that supported the traditional instincts of the elite, and there are many instances of upper-class Romans facing pain or death in service of a higher cause. A connection was made between a settled family life and good government, so that Augustus was able to make use of traditional “family values” in his stabilization of the empire after the civil wars. Sexual desire was, of course, one of the passions to be restrained, not least because the legitimacy of offspring was seen as crucial. Augustus tapped into older traditions of both the Greek and Roman world stressing the importance of sexual restraint. One pseudo-scientific theory, for instance, taught that a man had only a limited amount of semen and that its preservation helped preserve the body’s strength until it was needed to produce heirs. (Traditionally, men in both the Roman and Greek worlds married late.) Abstinence from sex and physical strength went hand in hand. “As long as he remained a virgin, his athletic career was brilliant and distinguished. But once he began to have sexual intercourse, he ended his career ingloriously,” one reads of an athlete.3

So when Christians turned towards asceticism they were taking a path that was not in itself remarkable, but there were nevertheless elements of Christian asceticism that took it well beyond mere conventional restraint, often into a realm of obsessive intensity. We should remember, however, that there were other groups, such as the Jewish Essenes, the Gnostics and the Manicheans, who also preached extreme asceticism. Jesus himself had enjoined poverty, and his death, as well as those of the Christian martyrs, enshrined a tradition of suffering at the heart of Christian history. Christians of the fourth century were haunted by the agonies of martyrs of the previous generation. “We have seen no executioners, we have not known swords drawn against us, yet we set up altars of divinity. No bloody enemy assails us today, yet we are enriched by the Passions of the saints. No torture has stretched us on the rack, yet we bear the Martyrs’ trophies . . . ,” as one bishop of Rouen put it as he welcomed the relics of martyrs to his church.4 For many fourth-century Christians, it was as if suffering had to be undergone as a mark of one’s faith, even to the extent of deliberately inflicting it on oneself.

This sense of guilt could only have been reinforced by the new wealth of the church and what the historian Eusebius was to call the “hypocrisy of those who crept into the church” in order to enjoy its benefits. Jerome confessed himself appalled at how “parchments are dyed purple, gold is melted into lettering, manuscripts are dressed up in jewels, while Christ lies at the door naked and dying.”5 Cassian, who brought monasticism from east to west, and who, unlike (as we shall see) Jerome, had a relatively balanced and perceptive view of asceticism, put it more prosaically:

As their [the early Christians’] fervour cooled, many combined their confession of Christ with wealth; but those who kept the fervour of the apostles, recalling that former perfection, withdrew from the cities and from the society of those who thought this laxness of living permissible for themselves and for the church, to spots on the edges of towns, or more remote places and there practised privately and in their own groups the things they remembered the apostles had instituted for the whole body of the church. 6

All this was set against the infinite rewards if the soul could be purified for heaven. Once the possibility of an afterlife was accepted, powerful images of it could be developed. Christianity’s heaven of eternal bliss and a hell of perpetual torment had a powerful impact. In his Letter XXII to Eustochium, Jerome waxes on the great glory of the virgin as she reaches heaven, while, in the same letter, he describes his own fears of hell. To be confident of salvation, one could not take the risk of anything less than total commitment. Sexual renunciation was a central issue. Augustine took it for granted that his conversion would involve the adoption of a celibate lifestyle, and one young Alexandrian from the 320s was equally clear about what Christianity would mean for him: “If the Lord leads me on the way that I may become Christian, then I will also become a monk, and will keep my body without stain until the day when the Lord will come for me.” 7

So there were many impulses towards an ascetic way of life for Christians, and in the fourth century such a life was increasingly presented as drama. Written accounts of martyrdom had dwelt in prurient detail on the dismemberings, flayings, burnings and bone breaking involved, and the body now became the stage on which a different kind of performance was played out. Simply because the body has desires, for food, water, sex or human companionship, does not mean that they are necessarily difficult to control; many pagan philosophers appear to have seen an ascetic approach as requiring no more than a shift in perspective, a reorienting of the personality or soul (or, in many cases, simply living within the conventions of one’s class). As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus put it, “there is nothing easier than to manage a human soul. What is needed is to will; and the deed is done, success is achieved,” and the practice of philosophy can continue. Christians, on the other hand, tended to dramatize desires, particularly those of sexual desire (and here they followed Paul), as if they were cosmic forces, inspired by demons with whom deadly battles had to be fought. Jerome is an excellent example. Always a restless man, wracked by guilt and desire, he had come to the desert as a young man, and he later recalled the experience.

O how often, when I was living in the desert, in the lonely waste, scorched by the burning sun, that affords to hermits that primitive dwelling place, how often did I fancy myself surrounded by the pleasures of Rome . . . though in my fear of Hell [my emphasis], I had condemned myself to this prison house, where my only companions were scorpions and wild beasts, I often found myself surrounded by bands of dancing girls. My face was pale with fasting; but though my limbs were cold as ice, my mind was burning with desire, and the fires of lust kept bubbling up before me while my flesh was as good as dead.

He was echoed by St. John Chrysostom, another preacher consumed by the rage of sexuality and profoundly influenced by Paul. “How shall we tie down this wild beast? How shall we put a bridle on it? I know none, save only the restraint of hell fire.”8 Augustine’s Confessions has an extended dramatization of its author’s struggles with his sexual feelings, while for Anthony (see below) the devil appears in the shape of a woman when his other ploys fail.

There is an important point to be made here. The aim was not to torment the flesh itself in asceticism but, as Paul reminded his readers, the sins of the flesh. After all, Christ himself had taken on flesh, and, at the last judgment, the individual’s flesh would be returned to his soul. So flesh could not be evil in itself, otherwise it would come to a final end at death and would never have been adopted by Christ. It was the demons who took advantage of the flesh who were the problem. Paul laid down one of the foundational statements of Christian asceticism as essentially a battle between the unworthy self and sin/demons when he wrote in Romans 7:18–20, “The fact is I know of nothing good living in me— living, that is, in my unspiritual self—for though the will to do what is good is in me, the performance is not . . . when I act against my will, then, it is not my true self doing it, but sin which lives in me.” Asceticism is necessary to strengthen the will against the onslaught of demons (or “sin”), and the battle is better prepared for if the body, and the will, are trained. 9

As Jerome’s account suggests, the place in which the battle took place became as important as the struggle itself. In retreating to the desert, the body is tested to its physical limit by submitting it to unremitting heat, dehydration and isolation and thus strengthening it for its task of overcoming sin. The desert was also removed from the city, the setting for any form of “civilized” living, and was outside the rhythms of the seasons so fundamental to preindustrial society. Life in the desert is constant, unchanging, in these senses very much, in fact, like the Platonic God on whom many ascetics meditated. In so far as the aim of asceticism was to bring the individual close to God, the very peace of the desert, its lack of distraction, the chances it offered to conquer the demons that held back the soul from union with the divine, was ideal.

The Egyptian desert was the first setting for the ascetics’ struggles. In Egypt there was a clear demarcation between the fertile Nile valley, watered each year by the floods, and the desert beyond, and the abrupt contrast between the two worlds provided a vivid backdrop for the ascetic drama. From the beginnings of Egyptian history the desert had been feared as the home of demons. If these spirits were now appropriated by Christians as “their” demons, entering the desert was taking the battle to the source of evil. So Egypt became the most prestigious ascetic destination—Cassian, who had spent several years in the Egyptian desert before moving west, told his audience of Gauls that they were unlikely ever to reach the perfection of the Egyptian ascetics. This did not prevent those who never travelled there from making use of its image. Martin of Tours in Gaul, for instance, discarded plain wool, the usual clothing of the ascetic, for a shirt of real camel hair, and another Gallic ascetic insisted on living on imported Egyptian herbs.10 Special desert tours to see the ascetics in situ and ask their guidance became a favourite of aristocratic women. A particularly apt story is told of one Arsenius, a Roman of senatorial rank, who had taken to the Egyptian desert. A “rich and god fearing virgin from Rome” had come all the way to see him, expecting to be received with enthusiasm by her social equal, yet Arsenius rejected her, taunting her with coming only so that she could boast to her aristocratic friends in Rome that she had seen him. The last thing he wants, he tells her, is a host of women “making the sea a thoroughfare” on their way to disturb him.11 His fears were justified. Eventually so many took to the desert that it was said to be as busy as a city. While the Egyptian ascetics were the most celebrated, those of the Syrian desert ran them close. Here the custom was for ascetics to ascend pillars (hence their name, Stylites, from stulos, a pillar) in the hope of coming to heaven. Some would stay up there for decades, with their lower limbs festering through inactivity. The faithful would be hauled up in baskets for consultations.

The archetype of the desert ascetic was Anthony. Anthony was an Egyptian Christian and spoke Coptic rather than Greek. It is said that he did not bother to learn to read or write, the point being made by his biographer that academic achievement was not important for a “man of God” and could even be despised. After both his parents had died, Anthony became inspired by the Gospel text that those who would be perfect should give away all that they owned and commit themselves to God. His qualms that his unmarried sister would miss his support were soothed by a revelation that he should not care about the morrow, and he sent her off to a nunnery. He then, in about 269, embarked on a long retreat (he may have lived until he was over a hundred, dying in 356) in which he settled first on the fringes of the Egyptian desert, then moved to an abandoned fort across the Nile and eventually even further, into places where only nomadic Arab tribes wandered. Thus was established the idea in which an ever-deeper journey into physical remoteness corresponded to a pilgrimage to the innermost depths of being. Anthony’s life was written up either by Athanasius or someone close to him, in about 357, and this “vibrant ascetic odyssey,” as Peter Brown has described it, caught the imagination of Christians throughout the empire. Anthony, wrote its author, “possessed in a very high degree apatheia—perfect self-control, freedom from passion—the ideal of every monk and ascetic striving for perfection. Christ, who was free from every emotional weakness and fault, is his model.”12

Augustine gives an account in his Confessions of two of his friends coming across the text and being inspired to give up their careers in the imperial service to follow in Anthony’s footsteps instead. So began a new genre of literature in which the ascetic acquired the status of a celebrity. Famous collections of holy lives blended historical facts with amazing tales of miracles, and manuals allowed the reader to plot an ascetic path for her- or himself. Other works, more philosophical in tone, explored the language of asceticism, such as the state beyond all passion, the moment of absolute quietude when the end of the ascetic path has been reached, apatheia. Popular lives spread quickly. A life of one Paul of Thebes by Jerome is known to have been translated into Latin, Greek, Syriac, Coptic and Ethiopian almost immediately. With this substantial body of manuals available to those able to acquire copies, many ordinary Christians took up asceticism in their homes. Women refused to marry; some married couples stayed together but gave up sex. Others renounced their property and built monasteries for others or even ran their own. Some parents vowed to consecrate their baby daughters to perpetual virginity. Jerome grudgingly acknowledged that marriage had its purpose as a means of producing more virgins.

Yet while asceticism was appealing to some, it was also repugnant to many. It involved a reversal of the values of society, a rejection of traditional statuses and even a threat, some feared, through mass virginity, to the survival of humanity itself. Paula, the companion of Jerome, who founded a nunnery alongside him in Bethlehem, expressed the reversal of values in telling her nuns that “a clean body and clean clothes betoken an unclean mind.” An account by Eunapius, a devout Neoplatonist, illustrates the shock effect of those ascetic monks who took to direct action against paganism, invading sanctuaries that had always been held sacred.

At that time they brought into the holy places [the pagan temples] so-called monks: men by all appearances, though they lived like pigs; and they openly tolerated, and indeed executed, evil deeds past number or description. Yet it was seen as a work of piety to despise the divine: for any man at that time dressed in black and ready to demean himself in public, possessed a tyrannical power. Such was the depth to which human virtue had declined. 13

Asceticism has always had an impact. In the modern world we need no reminding of the guru who preaches asceticism and yet who ends up a multi-millionaire fawned over by credulous celebrities; in contrast, we have the example of Gandhi, who used his asceticism with great sincerity but also shrewdness in the fight for India’s freedom; he makes a fascinating case study of how asceticism disturbs those who have to deal with its political fallout. Perhaps the most profound transformation brought about by asceticism in the fourth and fifth centuries was in women who adopted a view of perpetual virginity. Renouncing sex involved a rejection of women’s primary purpose in ancient society, to produce and care for the next generation, as well as the subversion of the view, found, for instance, in the Greek world, that women’s sexual feelings were so powerful that women could not be allowed outside the home. Completely different patterns of life were now possible. In his letter to Eustochium, who had consecrated herself to virginity while remaining in her family home in Rome, Jerome explores the major reorientation needed in her life if she is to break her bonds to traditional Roman society. Eventually she came to live alongside him in Bethlehem. It proved so difficult to know how to deal with these “new women” that they were often referred to as if they were honorary men. “The manly deeds of this blessed woman” was how the (male) biographer of Melania the Younger referred to her renunciation of her wealth and all sexual contact with her husband. A story is told of a bishop who was discussing Olympias, who gave so freely to the church in Carthage. “Do not say ‘woman’; say ‘what a remarkable human being,’ for she is a man despite her outward appearance,” he told his listener. 14

The extraordinary result of this resolute rejection of old roles was to create new ones of much greater power and influence, especially for those women who took the chance to read the scriptures and other sacred writings and even in some cases to learn Hebrew. “Generous in giving . . . outstanding in nobility, fertile in writing, worthy of the esteem of the whole world,” was how one was described, while another man related how “in the land of Sicily I found a woman, most distinguished in the eyes of the world, but even more outstanding in the things of God. She showed me the way of truth in all things . . . convincing me how [best to live the Christian life] by reason and out of the scriptures.”15 Macrina, the sister of the Cappadocian Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa, and a scholar in her own right, is given enormous respect by her brothers and their colleagues. One has to go a long way back in classical literature—to the days of Homer, for instance, where women of the noble class such as Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, and Arete, wife of king Alcinous of Phaeacia, treated by all with honour because “she is full of unprompted wisdom,” enjoy similar admiration.

Hand in hand with the elevation of virginity in these years came the development of the cult of the Virgin Mary. She was now placed on a pedestal as the ideal of virgin womanhood, “alone of all her sex she pleased the Lord,” as Caelius Sedulius put it.16 The references to Mary in the Gospels are relatively few; John does not even mention her by name. A particular emphasis on her virginity first arose when a verse in Isaiah, “Behold a virgin will conceive,” was interpreted as prophesying the birth of Christ and hence inspired or corroborated the Gospel accounts of the virgin birth. This interpretation, however, was drawn from the Septuagint (Greek) version, which had used the word parthenos to render the Hebrew for almah, which meant no more than a young girl, so the scriptural base of Mary’s virginity was shaky, especially as the Gospels specifically mention that Jesus had brothers and sisters—this was a point made by Julian in his Contra Galilaeos. The earliest references by the Church Fathers (Tertullian and Irenaeus, for instance) concentrate on contrasting Mary with the fallen Eve, and it is only the fourth century that sees the development of a cult of Mary as perpetually virgin—Athanasius was among the first to use the term “ever virgin.” 17 The cult took its strength from the need for a symbol of female virginity, and its power is evident in the way the interpretation of the scriptures was distorted to support it. Jerome, in his commentary on Isaiah, even went so far as to argue that here if nowhere else the Septuagint version was superior to the original Hebrew,18 and Jesus’ brothers and sisters were now recast as “cousins,” “brethren” or even children of Joseph by an earlier marriage. Once the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity was accepted as unassailable, it was possible for Augustine, for instance, to develop the argument that Jesus had been born of a virgin so as to escape the taint of sin which would have been absorbed if the sexual act was involved—an approach which only served to reinforce Augustine’s view that those conceived in the normal way were corrupted by sin. This concern with the physical elements of Mary’s virginity became so intense that it was even argued that she gave birth without losing her virginity. Once again Jerome produced an appropriate verse in support, in the prophet Ezekiel: “This gate will be kept shut. No one will open it to go through it, since Yahweh the God of Israel has been through it, and so it must be kept shut” (44:2). Doctrinally, the cult reached its climax with the declaration that Mary was Theotokos, Mother of God (still her preferred title in the eastern church), which was proclaimed at the Council of Ephesus in 431.

The cult of Mary was not confined to ascetic intellectuals. The need for a goddess figure was profound in a religion founded by Jesus and shaped by Paul, two unmarried men, and at the popular level there are numerous apocryphal stories about Mary’s parents, childhood and upbringing and her assumption into heaven. The idea that she might have died and her body become corrupted became unimaginable, hence her “assumption” into heaven, noted in apocryphal sources for the first time in the late fourth century. In the east the emphasis was on “a dormition” (a falling asleep). Mary came to absorb the attributes of pagan goddesses. Vasiliki Limberis shows how the goddesses Rhea and Tyche, to whom temples had been built by Constantine in Constantinople, gradually became transformed into Mary, the Virgin Mother of God, as Christianity ousted the remnants of paganism in the city in the fourth century. It helped that Rhea, like many other goddesses, was herself associated with “virgin birth” stories.19 A particularly fruitful source was the Egyptian goddess Isis, who had become a universal mother goddess in her own right. Isis had developed the role of protector of sailors just at the time when her cult was transferred from Egypt to the Aegean by merchants. Mary too becomes a protector of sailors, the “star of the sea.” Isis’ emblem was the rose, and this too is appropriated by Mary, while representations of Isis with her baby son Horus on her knee seem to provide the iconic background for those of Mary and the baby Jesus. These representations, richly developed in Christian art, suggest a yearning for tenderness that had not previously been satisfied.20

So the cult of the Virgin Mary developed much deeper populist roots than many others and was strengthened by support at the highest levels of the church (as it still is in Roman Catholic Christianity). A good example of how the apocryphal stories about Mary were adopted by the church hierarchy can be seen in the fifth-century mosaics of S. Maria Maggiore in Rome. The basilica was built by Sixtus III in the 430s in celebration of the declaration of the Council of Ephesus that Mary was the Mother of God. In the Annunciation scene, which presents Mary in great splendour arrayed as a Byzantine princess, she is shown to have been spinning—drawing on an apocryphal story that she was in service in the Temple where she wove a veil for the Holy of Holies. Here Sixtus has appropriated a story with no scriptural support at all in order to make contact with popular devotion.

One of the results of the elevation of virginity was to transform women who did not espouse it into temptresses, the “dancing girls” of Jerome’s vision. While Mary was contrasted with Eve, women as a whole were equated with Eve, perpetuating her guilt through the temptation they offer to men. “Do you not realise that Eve is you?” inveighed the tempestuous Tertullian. “The curse God pronounced on your sex weighs still on the world . . . You are the devil’s gateway, you desecrated the fatal tree, you first betrayed the law of God, you who softened up with your cajoling words the man against whom the devil could not prevail by force . . .”21 So arises the dichotomy between virgin and whore, allowing no acceptable expression of female sexuality in between.

This approach to sexuality became so deeply ingrained in the later Christian tradition (and influences it still) that it is important to note that there were committed Christians who refused to endorse it. One such was Jovinian, a monk from Rome who became an ascetic himself but subsequently renounced asceticism as spiritually meaningless. Its rationale seems to have simply dissolved for him. Why should a virgin be given prominence in the eyes of God over a married person? he asked. Why should not one eat and drink freely so long as one offered thanks to God for one’s good fortune? What was important was baptism followed by a life committed to faith and true repentance after sin. Jovinian argued his case well, with strong support from scripture. Right at the beginning of the Bible, for instance (Genesis 1:28), God had ordered Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply. There was no rejection of sex here (and, as we have seen, Judaism was actively hostile to celibacy). Jovinian also ridiculed the idea that Mary could possibly have given birth without losing her physical virginity. His was a down-to-earth, balanced and realistic approach, and his views appealed to many. Naturally Jerome, now in Bethlehem, was outraged and was impelled to write one of his most vicious counter-attacks—he described Jovinian’s book as “vomit which he has thrown up” and its writer as a debauchee who gambolled in mixed baths (a particular place of iniquity for the ascetic) while true Christians fasted. Jovinian was declared a heretic, ordered to be flogged with leaden whips and forced to leave Rome for Milan. There he found himself again in the line of fire, this time from Ambrose, another fervent defender of the superiority of virginity over marriage. Jovinian’s counter-attack failed, and sex and sin remained inextricably linked in the Christian tradition. “Marriage and fornication are different only because laws appear to make them so; they are not intrinsically different, but only in the degree of their illegitimacy,” was Tertullian’s bleak view.22

Christian asceticism could easily appear to be self-serving, in essence a turning one’s back on one’s fellow men in search of salvation for oneself. There was an inevitable tension between the Judaeo-Christian ethical tradition which stressed one’s care for one’s fellow human beings and the ascetic response which involved withdrawal from human society. Many saw the rejection of human contact as a spiritual liberation. “With no human company to hold him back, his union with God would be all the easier,” as Cassian wrote of one of his ascetic acquaintances,23 and Jerome approved of the response of Melania when her husband and two sons died in quick succession: “Now I shall serve you, Lord, all the more readily, since You have freed me from this burden [sic].”24 But was there a purpose to asceticism beyond the search for an individual’s internal peace and—until Augustine rejected the idea that a “good” life guaranteed a place in heaven—personal salvation?

One notable and recurrent theme was that the ascetic acted as an intermediary between God and man. There is an account of an ascetic being asked about the merits of two brothers—he retreats “to receive some revelation from God” and then returns to say that he has been shown both in paradise. Pachomius, by tradition the first ascetic to found a monastery, saw this as the essential mark of the ascetic. “When the Lord ceases to reveal himself, we are but men, like every man.” 25 Another skill, long known in Christianity but now honed to even greater sensitivity by the committed ascetic, was the recognition of demons, false prophets and harbingers for Antichrist. The continual shifting of the boundaries between what was heretical and what was not, what was a Christian revelation and what was not, with the awful consequences of being wrong, resulted in major anxieties that ascetics were expected to calm. Martin of Tours was particularly adept at spotting devils even when they were disguised as professing Christians. Presented with a vision of Christ in majesty, Martin proclaimed that the true Christ would have appeared as a sufferer and this must be Antichrist in disguise.26 Other ascetics claimed that in their struggles with the flesh they were drawing the demons to themselves and so diverting them from other Christians: they were, as one put it, “defending the walls of the fortress.”27

Increasingly, however, the more stable and less tortured of those drawn to asceticism began to realize that peace of mind did not come easily. There was a growing recognition of both the immense loneliness of the ascetic journey and the presence of gnawing doubt as to whether one had done enough to be saved.28 Cassian, who had originally seen the solitary life as an ideal, began to realize its drawbacks, not least in that personalities which were already deranged could become far worse in solitude. “The more it [a vice] is hidden [as when an ascetic goes off on his own], the more deeply will that serpent foment in the sickening man an incurable disease,” he shrewdly noted.29 Others pointed out the illusion that solitude necessarily brought peace. “Wherever you may go, you will find that which you flee from goes before you . . . If you do not first set yourself to rights in the company of men, you will never be able to do so on your own.”30

By the fourth century there was a growing impulse to come together to share an ascetic life in community. Pachomius (c. 295–346), an Egyptian inspired by a vision to set up a monastery on the Upper Nile, is credited with the first rule for communal living. It proved so popular that by his death in 346 he is said to have presided over nine monasteries and two nunneries. In these early days solitude was still regarded as the aim of the true ascetic, and Pachomius’ monasteries were seen as a sort of halfway house, providing, as it were, an initial training where the believer could learn to live in silence and good order before retreating into a more remote setting. Eventually, however, to live in a monastery became an end in itself (although as William Dalrymple points out in his fine study of eastern monasticism, From the Holy Mountain, the ideal remains to this day that a monk is free to leave a monastery of his own accord in order to continue his spiritual journey elsewhere), and the concept of communal living spread quickly throughout the east. By 355, Basil of Caesarea, one of the celebrated Cappadocian Fathers, was able to tour monasteries in Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia. Back on his family estate in Cappadocia, he decided himself to withdraw from the world “to break all the links that bind the soul to the body, that is, to be without city, without house, without personal property, without particular friendships, without possessions, without means of livelihood,” and so he set out to found the earliest known monastery in Asia Minor. He appears to have been joined by or have joined others in a remote corner of his estate, and soon he was laying down rules for their communal living. There was to be a rota of prayer, the reading of scriptures, silence and the maintenance “of a profound sense of humility and self abasement.”31 One of the most important features of his monastic houses was their insistence on an authoritarian structure. For Basil the monks had to be divided into “those who are entrusted with leadership and those whose duty it is to follow and obey.” 32 This is ordered living with individual self-expression now firmly discouraged.

In the east it remained the custom for monasteries to be established in remote places. So even today Greek monks segregate themselves on Mount Athos, restricting visitors to men and not even allowing female animals to live on the mountain. There remains in the Egyptian desert a monastery built on the site of Anthony’s furthest withdrawal. It is 300 miles southeast of Cairo and 50 from the shores of the Red Sea; until forty years ago, when a road was built, it took three weeks to reach. In the west, in contrast, monasticism developed closer to cities. This was largely the result of the teachings of Cassian, a Scythian who had had personal experience of monasticism in Bethlehem and the Egyptian desert. He then travelled westwards, was in Rome by 405 and Marseilles by 415, and it was here that he founded two monastic houses, one for each sex (although these were not the first in Europe).

Cassian is important because he appreciated the benefits of ascetic life without being a fanatic. In his Institutes and Conferences, two surviving works which explore the nature of asceticism and its relationship to life in a monastic community, he meditates on the meaning of spirituality, assessing the vices that have to be overcome and the virtues that have to be cultivated to arrive at the true end of the ascetic journey, which he terms “purity of heart.” Life in the monastery must be a combination of ceaseless prayer, reading of the scriptures and active meditation. There had also to be a well-defined structure to ascetic life, a disciplined pattern of living under authority. Cassian was well aware of the dangers of following a charismatic ascetic leader. It was too easy to become confused or misled. Instead the ascetic path had to be set within “the royal road built upon the Apostles and prophets, and worn smooth by the footsteps of all the saints, and of the Lord himself.” Knowledge of this path could be achieved by constant reading of the scriptures and prayer but also by the acceptance of the authority of those who had trodden the way before, in the case of a monastery that of its elders. As Cassian put it, echoing Basil, “the first proof that you possess humility is this; that you submit to the judgment of the elders, not only what you are to do, but also what you are to think [sic].”33 It is in the very discipline of living that the monk comes close to God. Order brings its own reward. The exhortation on the walls of one monastery provides an effective summary: “Examine thyself, be contented, control thyself alone, obey, be humble, judge not, condemn not, forgive that you may be forgiven and that you may live in God.”

Cassian also urged his readers to be sensitive to the needs of the immediate community of fellow monks, so as to make oneself “loved by the brethren who share one’s task.” Extreme asceticism is not encouraged. If there is food available, the monk should not necessarily reject it—it is when the desire for food (or wealth or property) predominates that one wanders off the path. There is a wider community too, outside the walls of the monastery but not without its own needs. Cassian recognized that this community might have legitimate demands on the monks. Monks are an elite who provide a model for those who wish to come close to God, but through understanding God’s will they are also able to show his love to others. “So we cannot assure ourselves of a deeply rooted charity unless, easing a little the proper demands of a rigorous and perfect life, we show a ready willingness to adapt ourselves to the needs of others.”34 No longer should believers rejoice at freeing themselves from the demands of their fellow humans; monasteries could adopt new roles as havens for the poor, hospitals or schools. So Cassian advocated a stable community in which the primary purpose remained the search for “purity of heart” for its members, but which was at the same time sensitive to the needs of others.35 Once Cassian had shown that asceticism did not necessarily mean withdrawal from the local community, it became clear that those working within the community might also benefit from asceticism themselves. In Gaul the example had already been set by Martin of Tours (d. 397). Martin founded the first monastery north of the Alps at Liguge, in 360, and then, some ten years later, became a bishop, but he did not renounce his ascetic background. As his biographer Sulpicius put it, after he became a bishop,

Martin concentrated rigorously on maintaining his former character and attitude. His heart was blessed with the same humility, his clothing with the same coarseness. In this way, with a totally commanding but generous bearing, he did justice to his rank as bishop without abandoning the tasks and virtues of a monk.36

So in the west asceticism becomes part of the mainstream of Christianity. Robert Markus sums up the process well:

The boundary between Desert and City was being blurred, and the distance between the monastic life and life of the parishes diminished. The image of the monastic community was becoming adapted to serve as a model for the Christian community in the world, while the ascetic model it proposed to its members was becoming adapted to serve as the model for bishops and clergymen.37

Jerome, when out in the desert in his early life, had been asked to take sides in a dispute between two bishops. He replied, “Why should we bandy opinions about bishops, while clothed in sackcloth and ashes? . . . Chains, dirt, disordered hair: these are not the symbols of a ruler, but of one who weeps. Let them allow me my silence, I beg you.” 38 So the ascetic rejects political involvement. While asceticism might have offered a potential challenge to the new wealth and political status of the fourth-century church, in practice it proved politically quiescent, and the state expected it to be so. Those who indulged in ascetic free enterprise were now reined in. As we will see, the emperor Marcian (450–57) used the Council of Chalcedon (451) to strengthen imperial control over the church, and Canon Four of the council deals specifically with the monks. “Since certain persons under the guise of monks disturb church and civil matters, travelling about various towns and presuming to establish monasteries for themselves,” let them be aware that they should “embrace peace and occupy themselves only with their fasting and prayer, and remain in the place assigned them, and involve themselves in none of the business of the church [sic] nor of the secular world.”39 The authority of church and state was not to be challenged by those offended by its wealth and power. In practice, through enjoying the protection of the state and by remaining clear of politics, many monasteries were eventually to become among the wealthiest institutions in the community.

Yet, and this is important, asceticism reflected and reinforced an intense preoccupation with the individual self that was to become central to the Christian experience. Plato talked of the essential struggle between the soul and the desires of the body, but he does not involve himself personally in it. It is one of the marks of his greatness as a philosopher that he distances himself from the debate through the medium of dialogues, often using Socrates as a representative of his views. So it is possible to engage with Platonism intellectually rather than emotionally; there can be no sense of guilt, certainly no fear of eternal punishment, deriving from disagreement with Plato. The Stoics similarly made no heavy emotional demands on their audiences, because they did not see the achievement of “goodness” as a major challenge. Seneca put it in terms similar to Epictetus (p. 236 above): “The body requires many things for health, the soul nourishes itself [sic] . . . Whatever can make you good is in your power. What do you need in order to be good? To will it.”40 Paul, by contrast, both dramatizes the struggle and entangles it in the complexities of his own personality. “What a wretched man I am. Who will rescue me from this body doomed to death?” (Romans 7:24). While the answer lies in the death and resurrection of Christ, this did not appear to release committed Christians from a continuing process of struggle. Ambrose echoes him: “Greater danger lies not in attacks from outside, but from within ourselves. Inside us is the adversary, inside is the author of error, inside us I say, closed up within our very selves . . . it proceeds not from nature but from our own wills.”41

It is hard to find a Christian of the period who has found serenity, and the most committed, Jerome and Augustine, for instance, appear to be the most tortured. It seems that once the body has been alerted to the dangers that lie within it, it can never rest. Tertullian warns his flock that they are as defendants perpetually in the dock, with the punishment for those who lose their case an eternal one. There is no more revealing account of the struggle within than Augustine’s Confessions, where he battles to come to peace with a God who pries into his innermost thoughts. One can never know whether one is truly saved. There is no way to judge objectively just how guilty one is in the eyes of God. The only true way to secure a rest from tension on earth is to escape completely from the exercise of moral responsibility; here the “virtue” of obedience becomes crucial. William James, in his celebrated study The Varieties of Religious Experience, makes the point, quoting the response of a Jesuit:

One of the great consolations of the monastic life is the assurance that we have that in obeying we can commit no fault. The Superior may commit a fault in commanding you to do this or that, but you are certain that you commit no fault so long as you obey, because God will only ask you if you have duly performed what orders you received, and if you can furnish a clear account in that respect, you are absolved entirely . . . The moment what you did was done obediently, God wipes it out of your account and charges it to the Superior [sic!] . . . So that Saint Jerome well exclaimed, “Oh, holy and blessed security by which one becomes almost impeccable.” 42

Here the abdication of the power to think for oneself is complete.

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