Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Asceticism and Incarnation

Today the Orthodox Church celebrates (according to the Old Calendar) the memory of St Anthony the Great, often called the father of monasticism. The life of St Anthony, written by his contemporary, St Athanasius, is, in the words of the patrologist Johannes Quasten, "the most important document of early monasticism." It is mentioned in The Life of Pachomius; St Jerome writes that it had been translated into Latin; and it also mentioned by St Gregory the Theologian. One of the most famous witnesses to its influence comes from the Blessed Augustine in his Confessions. At a decisive point in his life he heard from a friend about two imperial officers who were converted by reading the life, and one of them was “so fascinated and thrilled by the story that even before he had finished reading he conceived the idea of taking upon himself the same kind of life and abandoning his career in the world… in order to become Thy servant” (8.6). The life of St Anthony became the prototypical work of monastic hagiography, and continues to be read and studied by Orthodox Christians of all walks of life.

The life of St Anthony makes for difficult reading for many today, however. The German theologian Alfred von Harnack wrote that it is “probably the most disastrous book that has ever been written.” The greatest stumbling block for many readers – apart from its vivid depiction of demons – is its emphasis on physical asceticism, which many today might view as a rebellion against the body, a means of intense physical repression, or as an example of radical dualism.

One should remember, however, that the author of St Anthony's life is St Athanasius, whose most famous work is On the Incarnation of the Word. Indeed, St Anthony's life could be seen as a sequel to this great work, a narrative history of the theology of the Incarnation.

St Athanasius writes of how the devil tempted St Anthony at the beginning of his monastic struggles by attacking him with carnal thoughts and desires, all of which he overcame. He continues:
All these were things that took place to the enemy’s shame. For he who considered himself to be like God was now made a buffoon by a mere youth, and he who vaunted himself against flesh and blood was turned back by a flesh-bearing man. Working with Antony was the Lord, Who bore flesh for us, and gave to the body the victory over the devil, so that each of those who truly struggle can say ‘not I but the grace of God which was with me.’ (5)
It is precisely the body that served as the battleground upon which the devil attacked St Anthony. But because the Lord Himself had born flesh, He "gave to the body the victory over the devil." St Anthony, through intense struggle with the devil, appropriated Christ's victory in his own body, while the bodiless devil "was turned back by a flesh-bearing man." It is the body that wins this victory over the devil, with the Lord’s cooperation. This is neither flight nor escape from the body.

Moreover, the body is returned to its "natural" state – that is, the state God intended for it at creation – through asceticism. St Athanasius relates how St Anthony, having spent twenty years struggling in asceticism in a tomb, finally emerges:
And so for nearly twenty years he continued training himself in solitude, never going forth, and but seldom seen by any. After this, when many were eager and wishful to imitate his discipline, and his acquaintances came and began to cast down and wrench off the door by force. Antony came forth as though from some shrine, having been led into divine mysteries and inspired by God. This was the first time he appeared from the fortress for those who came out to him. And when they beheld him, they were amazed to see that his body had maintained its former condition, neither fat from lack of exercise, nor emaciated from fasting and combat with demons, but was just as they had known him prior to his withdrawal. The state of his soul was one of purity, for it was not constricted by grief, nor relaxed by laughter or dejection. Moreover, when he saw the crowd, he was not annoyed any more than he was elated at being embraced by so many people. He maintained utter equilibrium, like one guided by the Logos and steadfast in that which accords with nature. Through him the Lord healed many of those present who suffered from bodily ailments; others he purged of demons, and to Antony he gave grace in speech. Thus he consoled many who mourned, and others hostile to each other he reconciled in friendship, urging everyone to prefer nothing in the world above the love of Christ. And when he spoke and urged them to keep in mind the future goods and the affection in which God holds us, ‘Who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all,’ he persuaded many to take up the solitary life. And so, from then on, there were monasteries in the mountains and the desert was made a city by monks, who left their own people and registered themselves for the citizenship in the heavens. (14)
Guided by the Logos, St Anthony emerges from the tomb as a "natural" man: he is neither thin nor fat, neither annoyed nor elated, but rather in a state of complete equilibrium. His goal has not been to mortify or repress his body for its own sake, but to re-establish his body in its proper relation to the soul. Having conquered the demons, he returns, as the archetypal spiritual father or Elder, to assist others in this spiritual warfare. He emerges from the tomb like a new Christ: healing the sick, casting out demons, consoling, and reconciling. The desert is transformed from the dwelling place of demons to a Christian city.

We see something similar in St Athanasius' description of St Anthony in his old age:
This is the end of Antony’s life in the body and the above was the beginning of the discipline. Even if this account is small compared with his merit, still from this reflect how great Antony, the man of God, was, who from his youth to so great an age preserved a uniform zeal for the discipline. He never succumbed, due to old age, to extravagance in food, nor did he change his mode of dress because of frailty of the body, nor even bathe his feet with water, and yet in every way he remained free of injury. For he possessed eyes undimmed and sound, and he saw clearly. He lost none of his teeth – they simply had been worn to the gums because of the old man’s great age. He also retained health in his feet and hands, and generally seemed brighter and of more energetic strength than those who make use of baths and a variety of food and clothing. (93)
The body is not only involved in salvation, it is the very place where man works out his salvation, for it is where the Lord dwells. Christ's Incarnation is the very criterion, foundation, and model for Christian life. Asceticism is not simply attention to oneself, but a co-operation with Christ. The ascetic, being led by the Word to appropriate what He has done for us in His Passion and Resurrection, attains the state of soul and body intended by Him at creation.

The full life of St Anthony by St Athanasius can be read here. My preferred print version is this.

1 comment:

Nomodiphas said...

That is one of the best explanations I have read of asceticism. Indeed this is one of those great treasures that we moderns have a very great dificulty understanding. Because we fail to understand it, we mistrust it and fail to engage in it and thereby fail to reap the benefits of it. Thanks for sharing this.