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.
- 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.
- 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.
- In Matthew 18 and 19 Jesus repeatedly offers that those who do not become as children will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
- 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.”
- 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.