Monasticism, Asceticism, Retreat from Society

I’m teaching a class on early monasticism at my church tonight, and in my preparatory reading I’ve come across many good quotations along the way. I reproduce them here for your enjoyment. Many of them sound like they could be talking about the church today. (The David Bentley Hart quote is from his excellent essay Christ and Nothing, The Rowan Williams and Karl Barth quotes are from Williams’s book The Wound of Knowledge, and the Peter Brown quotes are from his book The Body and Society.)

Christian asceticism is not, after all, a cruel disfigurement of the will, contaminated by the world-weariness or malice towards creation that one can justly ascribe to many other varieties of religious detachment. It is, rather, the cultivation of the pure heart and pure eye, which allows one to receive the world, and rejoice in it, not as a possession of the will or an occasion for the exercise of power, but as the good gift of God. It is, so to speak, a kind of “Marian” waiting upon the Word of God and its fruitfulness. This is why it has the power to heal us of our modern derangements: because, paradoxical as it may seem to modern temperaments, Christian asceticism is the practice of love.

—David Bentley Hart

The heritage of Stoic exaltation of the will dies hard, even now. Yet Benedict, following the fathers of the desert, assumes throughout the Rule that weakness and failure are the common order of monastic life.

—Rowan Williams

The . . . monasticism of the desert, and the great legislators [e.g., Basil, Benedict], approached the human problem at one level even more pessimistically than did Augustine. The shared life must be a withdrawn life; there are some social contexts in which the only victory is retreat, which so cloud the face of reality that the only way to ‘unillusioinedness’ is flight. And it must be life under obedience.

—Rowan Williams

Primitive monasticism is a search for a context in which illusions and distortions of reality can be removed. . . . The great contribution of monasticism to Christianity . . . is the acknowledgment that the believing community as a whole can save itself from seduction and deceit only if it allows for some who are prepared to undertake a drastic surgery upon the fantasizing and dominating self, and so remind the whole body of its vulnerability, its liability to live at a level of unseriousness. And it becomes increasingly clear, from Antony onwards, that such a surgery needs to be performed with at least a measure of assistance and mutual support in community.

—Rowan Williams

Even at the beginnings of monasticism it is possible to see what the Reformers were to object to, an apparent glorification of will at the expense of grace. Yet, finally, primitive monasticism is on the side of grace, if only because of the profound acceptance of failure in so many of the Desert Fathers.

—Rowan Williams

“The way into the desert” is “a highly responsible and effective protest and opposition to the world, and not least to a worldly church, a new and specific way of combating it, and therefore a direct address to it.”

—Karl Barth

The ‘world,’ the ‘present age’ of previous Christian radicals had been almost too big to be seen. Its measureless demonic structures had engulfed the very stars. There was no outside viewing-point from which to take the measure of its faceless immensity, and no hope of disengagement from its clutches other than through drastic rituals that promised total transformation, through the formation of small, inward-looking groups of the redeemed.

—Peter Brown

To flee “the world” was to leave a precise social structure fo an equally precise and, as we shall see, an equally social alternative. The desert was a ‘counter-world,’ a place where an alternative ‘city’ could grow.

—Peter Brown

“The imagined transfiguration of the few great ascetics, on earth, spoke to them of the eventual transformation of their own bodies on the day of the Resurrection.”

—Peter Brown

When they beheld him [Antony, after twenty years in the desert], they were amazed to see that his body had maintained its former condition, neither fat for lack of exercise, nor emaciated from fasting and combat with demons, but just as it was when they had known him previous to his withdrawal. the state of his sould was one of purity. . . . He maintained an utter equilibrium, as one guided by harmonious reason and steadfast in that which accords with man’s true nature.

—Athanasius Life of Antony

Basil . . . reconciled most excellently and united the solitary and the community life. . . . He founded cells for ascetics, but at no great distance from his cenobotic communities, and, instead of distinguishing and separating the one from the other, as if by some intervening wall, he brought them together and united them, in order that the contemplative spirit might not be cut off from society, nor the active life be uninfluenced by the contemplative, but that, like sea and land, by an interchange of their several gifts, they might unite in promoting the one object, the glory of God.

—Gregory of Nazianzus


1 comment so far

  1. lucashannon on

    Fantastic quotes, Jeff–I hope you have a great time in your class. The Rowan Williams book is fantastic (though my copy has a really ugly cover); I got it in the free book box at Regent! I really miss that box…

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