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Asceticism - Western Asceticism - Early Christianity

matt ideal sexual chastity

The most important early Christian ascetic forms were fasting and sexual abstinence. The former, as habitual practice, cannot be traced back to Jesus—his disciples did not even fast on the Sabbath. He said of himself, "The son of man came eating and drinking," wherefore he was criticized as a "glutton and drunkard" (Matt. 11:19). His apparently exceptional forty-day fast in the desert (like Moses and Elias) became, nevertheless, the paradigm whereby this practice later became part of the permanent imitatio Christi. The basis for the ideal of chastity was in Jesus's saying "And there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake" (Matt. 19:12). Yet this was practiced very rarely (according to the most important theologian of the third century, Origen of Alexandria), in order to avoid comparison with the priests of Attis. Paul was more influential, teaching, in the face of the imminent coming of the end of the world, that he who has a wife shall behave as if he has none (1 Cor. 7:29). He only allowed for physical love reluctantly, as a concession; it was far preferable that all believers would be as chaste as he. For how else could one concentrate oneself entirely upon Christ? The doctors of the church built upon these elements enthusiastically and combined them with misogynist components of the Judaic creation doctrine and ancient philosophy. St. Jerome (c. 347–419 or 420), who devalued marriage in favor of chastity, and St. Augustine (354–430), who argued that original sin is reenacted through the sex act, laid the foundations of the Christian sexual ethic that are still with us today. Doubts about the eschatological salvation of married people (as in the ascetic sect of the Encratites) were, however, consistently refuted as heresies.

Christian asceticism, as a movement that truly shaped the conduct of life, found its most emphatic expression in the monastic fathers in the deserts of Egypt and Syria, who were also paradigms for the ideal of contemptus mundi and self-mortification. The spread of asceticism throughout the Western world paralleled that of monasticism, which based itself consistently upon vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. The following aspects contributed to its ideological background:

  1. The wish to imitate the religious founder (imitatio Christi), a consequence of a (hardly authentic) saying of Jesus, "And anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is unworthy of me" (Matt. 10:38).
  2. The reception of the pagan soma sema doctrine: spiritualized, this led to the commandment, in harmony with a dualistic belief system, to "leave" all pleasurable earthly things in order not to sully oneself with material goods (contemptus mundi).
  3. The monastic ideal of the angelikos bios, the angelic life, which implied wakefulness, fasting, and sexual abstinence, since angels neither sleep, nor eat, nor love.
  4. Self-punishment during earthly existence in order to avoid the incomparably more horrific divine revenge in the beyond; also, taking on penance for another's sins (with the same intention) as atonement toward the Godhead.
  5. Presentation of an immaterial oblation.
  6. Weakening of the body with the aim of rendering it less susceptible to sinful practices.
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