The Body in Early Monasticism

If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” It was with the inspiration of this Gospel passage that St. Antony the Great took off to the deserts of Egypt to begin a life of arduous asceticism. Antony, who is commonly attributed the title of “founder of Christian monasticism,” and his legacy have continued to provoke new questions over the past seventeen hundred years. What exactly motivated him to move out to the desert? Who had preceded him, both before the coming of Christ and after? To what extent did later monastic fathers and mothers follow his example, and to what extent did they diverge from it? And ultimately, were his motivations and lifestyle choice authentic to the Gospel?

Many critics of early Church monasticism will point to Manichean and dualistic tendencies in the teachings and practices of these desert fathers and mothers. The shift from eremitic to cenobitic monasticism after the time of Antony, initiated by figures like Pachomios and Basil, could be seen as a reaction against these dualistic tendencies. Meanwhile, others may view this shift as part of a continuous process of refinement and clarification of the ever-present tension between body and soul. Still, others will insist that the phenomenon of voluntary celibacy as a whole is inconsistent with the Gospel’s anthropology. Contemporary writers continue to attempt to reconcile the at times conflicting relationship between the body and soul, and its implications for the relationship between marriage and celibacy, prayer and work, and Church and world. This essay will consider the development of Christian asceticism in the early Church and will evaluate its consistency with the moral implications of the Incarnation.

In order to understand Christian asceticism, it is important to look at the tradition of vowed celibacy in pre-Christian cultures. In pagan Rome, marriage was the ideal state of life for citizens of the Empire. In his work The Body and Society, Peter Brown indicates that marriage was viewed as a political virtue. It contributed to the growth and flourishing of the city, and symbolically represented a “public desire to emphasize the effortless harmony of the Roman order.”[1] Virginity, usually lived by pagan priests and priestesses, was an exceptional circumstance. Virginity is recognized as holding a “crucial importance for the community precisely because it was anomalous.” Unlike vowed celibates in the Church, the virginity of pagan Rome “did not speak to the community as a whole of a long-lost perfection. It did not represent the primal state of humankind, that could, and should, be recaptured.” Rather, they “stood out as glaring anomalies [that] were exceptions that reinforced the rule.”[2] Continence in marriage and the ordering of bodily desire served as means to “train the instinct to pursue rational goals,” whose ultimate fulfillment was to be realized in the good of the political body. Clement of Alexandria contrasts the Christian view of continence, claiming that the goal is rather “not to experience desire at all,” conforming the totality of the body and desire to the ideal of glorifying Christ. The perfect realization of the Christian ideal is not to be attained in this life, but in the heavenly City, in which the resurrected body will “join in Christ’s victory” and “wrench itself free from the grip of the animal world.”

While some Christians valued celibacy for its prophetic dimension-pointing those living in the earthly city toward its heavenly ideal, others viewed it as a “drastic alternative to the moral and social order . . . of organized society,” of the present age, which “would crumble like a sandcastle, touched by the ‘ocean-flood of the Messiah.’”[3] Brown goes on to point to how this view influenced in the ascetic movements in the Egyptian deserts in the late third century. The desert “delimited the towering presence of ‘the world’.” He continues, “to flee ‘the world’ was to leave a precise social structure for an equally precise and equally social alternative,” making the desert into a “counter-world.”[4] Sexual temptation was not problematic in itself, rather, instead, because it kept the ascetic connected to the existing social order. Hunger was an even more “bitter struggle” because it forced the ascetic to continue to depend on the social order. The first sin of Adam and Eve was not sexual in nature, but one of “ravenous greed.”[5] Fasting, then, served more as a means of purification from greed and avarice rather than a denial of the material needs of the body in themselves. The ascetic life placed material reality within the context of its relationship with paradise. Fasting offered a glimpse of pre-lapsarian Eden, and eating became a foretaste of the heavenly Kingdom.[6]

The greatest obstacle to God was not the body itself but rather the impure condition of the heart. Endurance in the ascetic life allowed for the monk to grow in “transparency of heart.” Thus, rather than detaching himself further from his body and its needs, the monk seeks to reintegrate them with his truest needs in accordance to their proper order.[7] The heart is the “center of the person . . . the meeting point between body and soul . . . between the human and divine.”[8] The purity of one’s heart flows forth into the body, exuding a sense of radiance and integrity. Brown references Athanasius’s Life of Antony, in which Antony’s purity of heart “radiated such magnetic charm,” and allowed him to be receive pilgrims and visitors with absolute openness and charity.[9]

The opening of the monk's heart demonstrates the profoundly communal dimension to Christian asceticism. In addition to serving the common good of those still living in society by pointing them to the ultimate good, the deserts soon began to give fruit to monastic communities. Many of the monks started to recognize the need to follow a spiritual father in order to “understand his own heart, and to open that heart to others.”[10] Monastic communities soon began to emphasize obedience to a spiritual authority figure, which eventually gave life to the early monastic rules of monastic fathers like Pachomius, Basil, and Benedict.

Brown concludes his evaluation of early Christian monasticism by emphasizing the unique importance that it attributes to the body. While the body is what attaches humanity to “worldly” desires like lust, greed, and pride, it is neither an “irrelevant part of the human person,” nor is it separated from the soul. Rather, the body participates in the spiritual transformation of the person. The monks of the desert moved further and further from a pagan emphasis on “unceasing vigilance of his mind alone.” He continues, “the rhythms of the body and, with the body, his concrete social relations determined the life of the monk . . . the material conditions of his life were held capable of altering the conscious itself.” He refers the Climacus’s metaphor of the material needs of the body as a clay which refines and purifies the immortal spirit. With time, Christian monasticism distinguished itself from Gnostic notions of dualism by proposing a model in which the body and soul collaborated in glorifying of God through the entirety of the person.[11]

John Paul II draws important correlations between the Christian conceptions of morality, sin, and “the heart” in light of the Incarnation. We will consider his reflections on these topics in the Theology of the Body to further understand the moral implications of early Christian asceticism. John Paul II asserts that Christ introduces a new moral ethos by means of his appeal to “the beginning” (man’s prelapsarian state). He seeks to identify the relationship between Christ’s claim to “fulfill the Law” in the fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel with each of the moral proscriptions that follow. He focuses in particular on Matthew 5:27-28, in which Jesus condemns a lustful gaze as “adultery in the heart.” Christ’s new ethos guides the person toward her fulfillment by reorienting her heart to its original purity. Christian morality holds significant anthropological implications: the point of reference for ethical living is no longer “norms that clothe themselves in the form of commandments, precepts, and prohibitions.”[12] Rather, it is the “I”-the human person herself. The relationship with the incarnate Deity purifies the inner person-the “heart”- allowing her to recover her prelapsarian state of being. As the heart moves closer toward its original state, the person can more freely refer to her own body as an indication of how to order her needs and desires.

Sin, then, is not the rebelling of the body from the soul, but rather of the “concupiscible flesh” from the “spiritual man.” Original sin brought about the state of the “historical man” who lives in a state of disintegration because he rejected the ultimate source of unity-God himself. But in Christ, man is able to return to his original state, in which his flesh and soul lived in harmony.[13] The body, then, will be brought to its fully glorified state in the resurrection of the body, when it will be perfectly synthesized with the soul.[14]

John Paul II contrasts this view to Gnostic readings of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, which characterizes the battle between flesh and spirit as an indication of the dualistic nature of the human person. The flesh is weak because it is born of the earth, which is temporal and fragile. Man’s strength comes from his spiritual nature. Though the post-lapsarian man’s flesh and spirit exists in a state of disintegration, in Christ, they can be restored to their original state of integration. The resurrected body then will be a “spiritualized body” which is “full of power and imperishability.” As indicated by Brown’s account of the early ascetics, the Christian seeks to purify the heart-which is the seat of man’s moral sensibility-rather than the body itself. The ascetic seeks to eliminate the “concupiscible flesh,” that is, the weakness of heart that informs the moral dimension of how man lives in the flesh, rather than the flesh itself.[15]

He later expounds on the meaning of Paul’s words on voluntary virginity in 1 Corinthians. Paul counsels his audience to live celibate lives, but does not command it as doctrine. John Paul II examines why Paul treats virginity in this way. Firstly, he indicates that virginity is superior to marriage insofar as it acts as a living sign that the body, and all earthly life in general, will reach its complete fulfillment only in the heavenly Kingdom. Man exists not for the sake of marriage, but for the sake of unity with God, the divine Spouse.[16] Virginity, then, exists for the “sake of all,” in two ways. Virginity as a perpetual state of life consists of a charismatic dimension, which chiefly precedes from a grace given to particular persons (a vocation or calling). This grace is shared with the rest of the Church in that it points married couples to their ultimate calling, which also implies that they live their relationship with a “virginal dimension,” seeking fulfillment in the divine Spouse together rather than in each other.[17]

This understanding of virginity may provoke some to call into question the consistency of the early ascetic movements with authentic Christian morality and anthropology. Antony of Egypt’s austere spiritual practices offer a unique understanding of the tension between work and grace. Athanasius states that Antony fasted intensely, wore the same clothing “until he died,” refused to shower, and never allowed anyone to see him naked while he was living.[18] He also gives an extensive account of his numerous battles with demonic spirits. Athanasius claims that his extreme asceticism exacerbated the intensity of his bouts with temptation and further enticed these demonic spirits. To what extent was this extreme form of asceticism a “grace” given to Antony for his own salvation and for the sake of the Church, in the sense that John Paul II indicates in the Theology of the Body? Were these battles with evil forces beneficial, or even necessary, for his purification of heart? John Paul II speaks of enkrateia, the self-mastery of the flesh, so as to bring it under the domain of the spirit.[19] Perhaps Antony’s asceticism overemphasized the “self-work” of enkrateia, obscuring the extent to which God is the ultimate source and end goal of purification of the flesh? It is clear from Athanasius’s account of Antony’s life that his retreat into the desert was divinely inspired, indicating that it was indeed a “grace.”[20] He also is seen relying on God’s grace to do battle against demons and temptations. The fruits of these battles clearly serve the needs of the Church at large.[21] But to what extent should his example be said to be normative of Christian asceticism?[22]

Though Antony blatantly rejected Manicheism, his negative view toward the flesh can be said to capitulate to dualistic conceptions of the person.[23] According to G.K. Chesterton, this “ascetic appetite” is an appetite in itself. It is part of a “religious impulse” in man that inevitably veers toward a pessimistic attitude toward the flesh. This impulse takes form both inside of the Church and outside; he cites Manicheism, the Hindu fakirs, and Schopenhauerian philosophy as examples. The early ascetics of the desert were driven by this same impulse, but were profoundly different in that they adhered to the authority of the Church. The authority of the Church flows directly from the Incarnation, in whom the Church’s anthropology finds its source and fulfillment. The Church’s anthropology, which affirms the goodness of the flesh, guaranteed to keep this “impulse” in check.[24]

Antony, though physically removed from the authority of the Church, had a great reverence for the bishops and other clergy, who often sought ought Antony’s advice.[25] As the ascetic movement continued, a greater emphasis was placed on communal life guided by a spiritual authority. Pachomius, a desert father who began his ascetic journey nearly forty five years after Antony, composed a monastic rule that consists of a series of directives regarding the daily life and dynamics of a monastic community. These directives range in content matter, dealing with prayer schedules, norms for dining, and proper decorum for relationships between fellow monks and with the spiritual father. Pachomius’s communities valued an intense prayer life and strict obedience to the Rule and to the authority of the leader.[26]

Basil’s Rule, which was compiled approximately fifty years after Pachomius’s, also valued prayer, but placed an even greater emphasis on labor. Warning of the dangers of idleness, Basil exhorts his monks to follow Paul’s teaching in his letter to the Ephesians: “labor and do honorable work with your hands that we may have something to give to those in need,” adding that “worthy of his food is not just everyone and anyone, but the laborer.” Basil’s communal life focuses on both temporal and spiritual concerns, and integrates labor with the prayer life of the community. This adjustment to earlier forms of asceticism had an eye toward the needs of the growing Christian Church. His Rule, as well as that of later fathers like Benedict and Augustine, would combine a sense of separation from society with a concern for the needs of the society’s common good.[27]

The moral implications of the Incarnation gave birth to a tension that has plagued Christians since the Church’s beginnings. This constant state of tension between existing away from the world and for the sake of the world has taken on varying forms, but has persisted throughout the history of the Church until the present day. What is the ultimate goal of the Christian? How can we serve the world while being detached from it? These questions regarding the Church’s relationship with the world stem from the similar tensions between body and soul, prayer and work, the individual and the community, and the city of God and the city of Man. Can a Christian be fully engaged in today’s world, a world which some would deem “post-Christian,” without rejecting his or her faith? Some will contend that it is necessary to sway closer toward the path taken by the early ascetics who focused more on the dimension of detachment. Others will contend that Christians ought to focus more on doing works in the world, which will witness to the Christian faith and expand the vibrancy of the presence of the Church community.

Perhaps Chesterton’s evaluation of the Catholic theology of authority may be helpful as we seek to sort out these complex questions in our contemporary context. The witness of history will testify to the values and dangers of both ends of the spectrum, but the stability of the Church’s authority can serve as a consolation and guide as 21st century Christians move forward toward the heavenly Kingdom.

Featured Image: Meister der Hl. Sippe, Legend of the Holy Eremite Anthony, c. early 15th Century; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 

[1] Peter Brown, The Body and Society (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 16.

[2] Ibid., 8-9.

[3] Ibid., 31-32.

[4] Ibid., 218.

[5] Brown continues, “. . . no longer content to contemplate the majesty of God largely unconscious of the needs of their body, Adam and Eve had reached out to devour the forbidden fruit . . . greed, and, in a famine-ridden world, greed’s blatant social overtones-avarice and dominance-quite overshadowed sexuality” (Brown, op. cit., 220).

[6] Ibid., 221.

[7] Ibid., 223.

[8] Ibid., 228.

[9] Ibid., 226.

[10] Ibid., 228.

[11] Ibid., 235-237.

[12] John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston: Pauline Press, 2006), §24:2, 25:2.

[13] Ibid., §26:2.

[14] Ibid., §52:5.

[15] Ibid., §72:2.

[16] Ibid., §82:8.

[17] Ibid., §84:8.

[18] Athanasius, The Life of Antony and The Letter to Marcellinus, trans. Robert C. Gregg (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), §47.

[19] John Paul II, op. cit., §53.

[20] Athanasius, op. cit., §2

[21] Ibid., §49.

[22] I’m not necessarily dismissing the aforementioned concerns, but offering possible counter-arguments. I’m trying to display the tension between Antony’s extreme lifestyle and his commitment to the Gospel.

[23] Athanasius, The Life of Antony and The Letter to Marcellinus, trans. Robert C. Gregg (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), §68.

[24] G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, ch. 4, Project Gutenberg of Australia, <>

[25]  Athanasius, op. cit., §67.

[26] Rule of Pachomius, part 1, trans. Esmeralda Ramirez de Jennings, ed. Rev. Daniel. R. Jennings, <>.

[27] The Asketikon of St. Basil the Great, trans. Anna M. Silvas (Oxford: OUP, 2005), 243 (Long Rule §37).




Stephen Adubato

Stephen Adubato is pursuing his masters degree in moral theology at the Immaculate Conception School of Theology at Seton Hall University, and teaches religion and philosophy at a Benedictine high school in New Jersey. He also blogs at Cracks in Postmodernity.

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