ASCESIS – ASCETIC

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ASCESIS – ASCETIC I. The term and Greek education – II. Eastern dualisms and Buddhist ascesis – III. Bible and Judaism – IV. Jesus – V. Paul – VI. The primitive church – VII. Monasticism. I. The term and Greek education. The verb avskein refers to the training of an athlete or soldier; since the time of Herodotus and Xenophon it was also applied to virtue. A long tradition, renewed by Epictetus, considered fu,sij ma,qhsij and a;skhsij natural gifts, abstract teaching and systematic exercise as complementary, each playing its part in success. This humanistic aspect, focused on the human measure in education, is specific to Hellenistic culture and quite different from the Jewish view of trust in God. Another very Greek aspect is the cult of the hero and thus the tendency to a forced ascesis, capable of forming a class of supermen. Among the Cynics, ascesis could tend to a paradoxical life, disdaining the convictions of the city. Even Stoic ascesis and its aspiration to avpa,qeia elimination of the passions could be pushed too far. Those in the Platonic tradition could err through a certain contempt of the body. II. Eastern dualisms and Buddhist ascesis. Persian rule in the East, Alexander’s conquests as far as India, and active trade via land and sea may easily suggest an influence of Eastern asceticism on late Judaism or early Christianity, though our texts fail to reveal any. At the same time, radical dualism and indifference to the appearances of the sensible world could not fail to be deeply criticized by a religion of creation, redemption and resurrection, though incentives to purification and spiritual life could play a positive role. There is not space here to examine, with the requisite nuance, the different Eastern forms of ascesis and their influence on the Syrian, Coptic and Greek worlds. III. Bible and Judaism. Those who define ascesis as a pessimistic contempt of the world will find it neither in the OT nor the gospels. Such a definition, however, is far from accepted. The ideal of the desert of close intimacy with God at the time of Hosea or the exodus or of the liberation from Babylonian captivity, along with that of the forty days of fasting and vision on Sinai or Horeb and the old Rechabite and Nazirite traditions, were suited to austerity and led to the secluded life of Qumran or to John the Baptist, the new Elijah. IV. Jesus. If some texts contrast the Baptist’s austerity with Jesus’ familiarity with the table of sinners Mt 11:18; Mk 2:16 or with certain women Mk 15:41, other traditions emphasize his continuity with the witness of the Baptist and esp. the radical demands of the kingdom Mk 8:34. The ascetics of the early centuries could appeal to numerous logia, which in fact do not refer to “counsels” but to a choice that imposes itself though without legalism Mt 19:21 and to the example of the cross. The gospel context is strong enough to overcome any pessimism or dualism and to combat any pretense of being better than sinners or any masochism that could disturb the prospect of a life of freedom in brotherly love. V. Paul. In his communities, esp. at Corinth, Paul encouraged the struggle of the Spirit against the flesh, even to the subduing of the body 1 Cor 9:27, putting himself forward as an example. His praise of celibacy is, perhaps, more than antiquity recognized, a way of resisting an exaggerated ascetic tendency 1 Cor 7:2, 20, 25, 29. At any rate, Col 2:18-23 and 1 Tim 4:1-4; 5:14 provide a polemic against such a tendency. VI. The primitive church. Justin Martyr and Athenagoras spoke of virgins of both sexes who were the glory of the church; earlier 1 Clem. 38,2 and Ignatius Pol. 5,2 were careful to put ascetics of this sort on guard against insubordination to the bishop or the community. The Encratite movement tended to condemn marriage. The NT apocrypha the Gospel of the Egyptians, the Gospel of Thomas, and apocryphal Acts of the Apostles make virginity or the breaking of conjugal ties the clearest point of the new morality. Extremist practices may have been foreign to the great church, but most of these texts well represented a popular Catholicism. In Syria and Egypt, however, certain practices that the West considered excessive were allowed. The gnostics, then the Manichees, at times had a rigorist doctrine, a pretence of great spirituality, but those who would become angels often become beasts. Clement of Alexandria opposed the gnostics esp. v. Strom. I and III, while Origen established a theological interpretation of ascesis for a summary see esp. Hom. Num. 27. VII. Monasticism. The terminology of “ascesis” and its philosophical content entered early monasticism in various ways. The philosophical tradition esp. Stoic combined with scriptural interpretation beginning with Philo of Alexandria, who interpreted the figure of Jacob as an “athlete” and “ascetic” who struggled against vice Esau to acquire virtue, and in the end receive the gift of apatheia and the new name Israel Gen 32, interpreted ascesis etymologically in the sense of the contemplative life one who sees God. This interpretation is taken up by Origen along with the Pauline struggle see above and is transmitted to early monasticism through various authors, including Anthony, Evagrius of Pontus and John Cassian, for whom it becomes the binomial of practical ascetical life bios praktikos and contemplative life bios theoretikos. The terminology askesis also enters through Athanasius’s Vita Antonii more than 40 times, whose influence on the formation of the monastic and hagiographical tradition was considerable. The arrival of monasticism disciplined Eastern ascesis and gave it an honorable place in the church, while leaving outside certain sects in which the scale of values was not discreetly respected. The prestige of this ascesis and of these forms of prayer characterized all Christian people. Lent, abstinence from meat or other foods, continence within marriage, and severity of morals were essential to the strength and freedom of the church of the Fathers, and favored works of charity and the communion of hearts. J. Bergman – A. Markert – J. Maier – J. Gribomont et al., Askese: TRE 4, 195-259; R. Arbesmann, Fasten: RAC 7, 447-524; H. Chadwick, Enkrateia: ibid. 5, 343-365; K.S. Frank, Askese und Mönchtum in der Alten Kirche, Darmstadt 1975; K. Niederwimmer, Askese und Mysterium, Göttingen 1975; var. aus., Etica sessuale e matrimonio nel cristianesimo delle origini, Milan 1976; A. Guillaumont, Aux origines du monachisme chrétien, Bellefontaine 1979; P. Hadot, Esercizi spirituali e filosofia antica, Biblioteca di cultura filosofica 50, Turin 1988; M. Sheridan, Jacob and Israel: A Contribution to the History of an Interpretation, in Mysterium Christi: Symbolgegenwart und theologische Bedeutung. Festschrift für Basil Studer, Studia Anselmiana 116, Rome 1995, 219-241.  

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