RLST 260/23, 8 November 2001, Vered Arnon
Athanasius gives a detailed account of the ascetic life in his hagiography The Life of Antony. In this book he describes one individual’s pursuit of this lifestyle. St Antony was extremely respected and he became a model for many ascetics after him. His remarkable life is an example of one of the more extreme ways human nature combined with religion can influence a person’s life.
According to Athanasius, Antony was inspired to embark on the ascetic life when he heard the Gospel being read in a church. “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” Immediately he went out and gave away most of his belongings. Eventually he gave away everything, put his sister in a convent, and secluded himself in a cave to pray and fight demons.
While his lifestyle wasn’t as extreme as some of his contemporaries, (such as Ammonius who would subdue his erections with a hot poker) Antony led a very disciplined rigorous life. He often fasted, and when he did eat, he ate very little. He wore uncomfortable clothing and he didn’t bathe. He lived alone in his cave, without human company, and constantly battled demons who threatened him with hallucinations and real disruption around him.
Ordinarily, such behaviour would be regarded as insane. In the modern world, people are so far removed from the historical martyrs, that people rarely contemplate forsaking their worldly life to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and the saints. But in the Third Century, when martyrdom was not yet part of such a distant past, it was very inspiring and had a great impact on people. Ascetics like Antony wanted to emulate the martyrs, who emulated Jesus, in order to be closer to God. They didn’t discipline and punish their bodies because of insanity and self-hatred. Rather, they wanted to purify themselves, in order to rise up to a higher spiritual level.
St Antony is considered the founder of anchorite monasticism. The solitary lifestyle he pursued takes much of its inspiration from the Gospels and scripture itself. The most important goal of the rigorous lifestyle he pursued was to purify his body. The body itself wasn’t considered bad, but physical desires were, because they distracted a person from spiritual pursuits. The fundamental principle the ascetics operated under was that by overcoming and subduing physical desires, one could transform oneself spiritually. For example, eating food was necessary for the body’s survival, but paying excessive attention to hunger would lead one to gluttony. Sexual desires were considered to be the most important urges to overcome and subdue, since sexuality was the cause of original sin. Ascetics fasted and led celibate lives. They lived in harsh conditions and paid little attention to their material needs for various reasons, one being that this would instill humility, and another reason being that it would prevent greed. They subjected themselves to great hardships because they believed that by chastising the body, one was able to make the soul stronger. Their point wasn’t that the body was bad, because that in and of itself would have placed their focus on the body. Their goal was to focus on spirituality instead of physicality, and purify themselves in order to transcend the corruptible world and get closer to the incorruptible realm of God.
Ascetics removed themselves from human society and lived in caves in the deserts and wilderness because this would help guard them against temptation. Society was full of all the physical desires that they were trying to overcome, and full of temptations to gratify those desires rather than subdue them. Only by dedicating themselves to a completely introspective solitary life, did they believe they could truly overcome all the challenges and obstacles presented to them.
Humans always seem to find themselves extremely limited, in relation to God and the spiritual world. Christianity puts a lot of emphasis on this. Christianity teaches that this life is finite and temporary, but the grace of God and the afterlife is infinite and eternal. Individuals who felt particularly compelled by their dedication to God used the ascetic lifestyle as a way to show their devotion and overcome their limitations. Their practices, while emphasising humility, were actually very assertive. The more they disciplined themselves, and the more suffering they endured, the greater they believed their spiritual transformation could be.
Jesus and the martyrs endured such extreme suffering that no one could possibly suffer the same on their own. The martyrs’ literal “baptism of blood” couldn’t be experienced by someone who wasn’t being martyred. Yet by rigorously disciplining themselves and inflicting pain on themselves, by wearing uncomfortable clothing and living in the wilderness, the ascetics believed they could undergo a more figurative, psychological “baptism of blood”. By sharing in the pain of the martyrs and of Jesus, they’d be sharing in the grace of God that those individuals had.
While humility was considered one of Antony’s primary attributes, and the ascetic lifestyle was supposed to be one of extreme humility, the extent that ascetics went to make themselves suffer and remove themselves from human society and physical pleasure does seem to have involved a lot of pride. Pride in one’s religion and pride in one’s love of God seems to have helped to create the psychological motivation necessary for people to discipline themselves so rigorously.
Humans instinctively want to suffer for what they love. Throughout history there have been many examples of this. Asceticism is a very extreme example of how humans have made themselves suffer out of their love for God. Only an understanding of their view of Christianity can explain why they behaved the way that they did. Human nature gave them the resources, and their religion gave them the inspiration. St Antony is revered as someone who led a very holy life.
Athanasius, The Life of Antony, NJ, Paulist Press Inc, 1980.