Scripture and Asceticism

Well, some time ago, I offered that in discussions with American protestants about celibacy, monasticism, and asceticism might be best approached if they first start Scripture. It is my contention that the early fathers also started with Scripture (and some of the earlier ones of course also had face to face conversations with Apostles which we lack). The point of view I’m trying to confront here is that married life “in the world” is normative and that Jesus via the gospels, Paul and the other New Testament writers, Peter, James, etc, teach present this as the highest or first calling for the Christian life. I’m going to confront this,  not by the writings of the Fathers, or by reference to the fact that not seeing asceticism as normative is a very modern (Protestant) idea but instead I’ll attempt to refer just to Scripture. So, for now … I’ll give that a shot and to start, I’ll just look at the life of Jesus and the Gospels.

Now in the Gospels, there are a number of narrative threads running through the start to the climax of Jesus’ life. One of the primary ones is a anti-temple narrative. However, there is also one supporting the ascetic life. So here are some essential narrative and/or elements to Jesus life and example that support asceticism.

  1. After being Baptised by John at the Jordan what does Jesus do? He goes into the desert, into a time of solitude for 40 days … facing down the devil and temptations.
  2. When the rich man who was fulfilling all the commandments asked what more he might do, the reply “sell all you have and follow me” was given.
  3. In Matthew 18 and 19 Jesus repeatedly offers that those who do not become as children will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
  4. When the disciples had been sent out, they failed to confront and cast out some demons. Jesus remarked, “this sort of demon can only be cast out through prayer and fasting.”
  5. Mary and Martha receive Jesus. Mary sits at Jesus feet and ignores home and hospitality. Martha is put out, but Jesus replies, “Mary has chosen the good portion.”

Demons for the early church in a large part meant those forces and temptations to sin. This is something all of us face. How then are we taught to confront sin? Jesus’ first response is fasting, prayer. What did he do? Fast and pray and retreat to the desert, to solitude. When a wealthy man is asked what to do, sell all you have and follow me (where? to a life of fasting and prayer?). John himself was an Essene. A desert ascetic feeding on locusts and honey teaching a life of repentance. That this man would be the one to validate and announce Jesus ministry, does this not validate and highlight John’s lifestyle to a degree. Finally, with Mary and Martha the two sisters might be seen as representing the life of the world vs and the life of prayer. Jesus does not rebuke Martha for her choice but he also says that Mary’s choice “is the good portion.” Finally, what is like a child? Humility and not being concerned with the cares of the world … might be the answer. How might an adult do this?

For the early church (and for that matter the church as a whole until the Protestant movement came about) found asceticism to be one of the primary messages from Scripture.

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7 comments

  1. […] matter God are really in the end more important than the ones we find to be pivotal. In a recent post of mine, arguments in favor of asceticism were made. In part, asceticism is about realizing those quiet […]

  2. […] matter God are really in the end more important than the ones we find to be pivotal. In a recent post of mine, arguments in favor of asceticism were made. In part, asceticism is about realizing those quiet […]

  3. Paul Pavao says:

    You wrote, “That this man would be the one to validate and announce Jesus ministry, does not validate and highlight John’s lifestyle to a degree.”

    I think that last “not” shouldn’t be there, no?

    Okay, one more comment. You write like you’re a Catholic, since you mention Protestants negatively, but the point you’re making doesn’t seem very Catholic, either. You say that it’s a Protestant idea not to see ascetism as “normative.”

    Do Catholics see ascetism as “normative”? As normative for a monk, maybe, but for the average Catholic? Augustine was ascetic, but what percentage of his congregation followed him in that? Not many, I’d venture to guess.

    The Montanists saw ascetism as normative, but Jesus addressed it pretty plainly I think. He said that avoiding marriage–as one example of ascetism–was a gift from God, only for those with that gift. Paul echoed that in 1 Cor. 7.

    Then, even on the matter of riches. Sharing everything was clearly normative. It’s mentioned in Acts, in the Didache (as a command), in the Letter of Barnabas (again as a command), in Justin’s First Apology, and in Tertullian’s Apology. Nonetheless, Paul, Justin, and Tertullian all said giving was free will only, and Paul mentioned rich people who needed to be admonished to share. Obviously, in order to share, we have to hold on to some possessions.

    You’re on a computer. I’m on a computer. I guess I’m looking for an explanation of “normative.”

  4. Mark says:

    Paul,
    Oh, I’m Eastern Orthodox. By normative I mean the normal aspiration, a call/calling for everyone. Yes, lifelong celibacy is only for the few. We are however all called to asceticism, fasting, prayer, and separation from the world (if not as a vocation, as more temporary thing). For example, celibacy, not lifelong, is a something we all do. Before marriage, during marriage when separate, after the death of your spouse … all are periods of celibacy. Paul speaks of agreed times of celibacy within marriage. More than that, in EO there is a call to movement towards celibacy within the marriage bounds in the later stages of marriage that is in old age. I would say this is not just “tradition” but validated by Scripture and its views on the importance of asceticism.

    Obviously, in order to share, we have to hold on to some possessions.

    One might consider that charity a calling of the laity. The monastic cannot perform charity, the monk has nothing to give. Jesus did not tell the young rich man to set up a charitable foundation. He said to sell all and follow me.

    I don’t mean to be too “negative” on Protestantism, yet their attitudes toward monasticism are, I think, mistaken.

    I think I meant to write, “does that not” instead of “not”. I’ll correct that thanks.

  5. Paul Pavao says:

    Well, that helps. I couldn’t put any context on what you said that I could understand.

    Now I can.

    I don’t think I agree with everything you said, but one, I didn’t come here to argue, and two, I’m all for people–even me–doing the things you talked about. I can give a hearty amen to denying oneself out of love for Christ and to making pleasing God more important than the things of this world.

    And three, I’m still not sure I understood everything you said, lol.

    One more quick question to help me start to get a grasp of this Orthodox thing. When you say “Eastern Orthodox,” is that a general term that could mean Russian or Greek Orthodox as well, or does that specifically mean you’re part of the branch with the bishop of Constantinople as patriarch?

    And I keep reading references to the patriarch of Constantinople. Isn’t that Istanbul now? Do you still call him patriarch of Constantinople? (Wikipedia says it’s Bartholomew I now.)

  6. Mark says:

    Paul,
    Eastern Orthodox is a general term. Russian, Greek, Syrian and many other Orthodox churches all “Orthodox” and in are in full communion with each other. The Russian and Greek churches (as well as the Ecumenical Patriarch which is the term for Bartholomew) each have their own patriarch. Wiki notes:

    Autocephaly, in hierarchical Christian churches and especially Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches, is the status of a hierarchical church whose head bishop does not report to any higher-ranking bishop.

    In council all Bishops have equal status or vote. I attend an OCA (Orthodox Church of America) which was granted autocephaly from the Russian church in the 70s, yet for the OCA being quite small our head bishop is a “Metropolitan” not a patriarch (Metropolitan is the term for the bishop of a large city or the equivalent) . Reconciling the regional jurisdictions, pointedly in North America, is a thorny problem for Orthodoxy. I think the Greek Orthodox patriarch is still located in Syria (on a street called “Straight”, cf. Acts).

    And three, I’m still not sure I understood everything you said, lol.

    Can you identify some questions on which I might attempt a response.

  7. Paul Pavao says:

    No, I can’t really identify any questions. Time is a wonderful thing, healing wounds and clearing up confusion.

    If I think of any more direct questions in the future, I won’t hesitate to ask. Thank you, you’ve been very polite and helpful.