The practice of asceticism in early Catholic history is a foreign concept to modern Protestant and reformed traditions. Many Christians today display a presumptuous familiarity with God and are so focused on his “saving grace” with a guaranteed assurance of salvation, that it has lead them to lives of excess, prosperity gospels, and justification of a mediocre spirituality. Prayer vigils and strict spiritual disciplines have passed away from the norm of Christian society and “modern asceticism” in America might best be defined by adhering to Lent, when Christians give up or sacrifice something important to them or that they feel entitled to; such as Starbucks or sugar, thus representing the sacrifice of Christ. Martin Luther King Jr. commented “If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. The pendulum has swung far from early Catholic asceticism, which could be recognized for its zealous and passionate labor in the exercise of drawing near to God. Protestant tradition tends to depict Catholics as having a works based religion that promoted the strict asceticism found in rigid self denial and extreme methods of self-abasement. While the fanatical ascetic element does seem to connect with the insecurity of merit based atonement, the legacy of asceticism leaves a tremendous value in its commitment to piety and virtue that are sorely lacking in modern reformed spirituality.
The New Testament makes several references to ascetic practices and encourages the early Christians to a more devout adherence to scripture. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in chapter 7 could easily be taken out of context because of his belief that the remaining time was short. He suggests(not a direct command from God), that marriage is for those who have sexual impulses that are not under control and he desires that all Christians could live celibate lives as he does, though he does acknowledge that this is a “gift” that only a few have. A single person, he asserts, would have less worries and responsibilities and more time to devote to God. Other verses discourage sexual immorality as well, such as Matt. 5:28 which denounce men who look lustfully at women and Matt. 19:12 which give recognition to those who become “eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven.” Luke 2:36-38 recognizes Anna for vow of stability, devoted worship, fasting and vigils. Simeon is called “righteous and devout” for his attitude of waiting for the consolation of Israel(messiah), while John the Baptist is celebrated for his radical degree of ascetic disciplines in the wild. Acts 2 and 4 recognize the communal attributes of the Christians that shared everything and lived in a cooperative state, not unlike the monasteries that would use these scriptures to promote their ideals. Paul again addresses the Corinthians in 1Cor. 7:5-7 where he suggests voluntary chastity for married Christians so that one could be more devoted to prayer. And finally, Romans 5:1-4 states that spiritual growth is acquired through suffering, though what kind of suffering is not defined. This vagueness will later allow some ascetics to insert a self-inflicted punishment as a means of atonement. The biblical doctrine of reward and being worthy began to lose its tenuous balance as the persecution of the church intensified. The result was a burgeoning legalism and a strong emphasis on purity that had a great impact on Barbaric Europe.
Tertullian’s contribution to asceticism, as a practice of spirituality, is demonstrated in his theology of suffering. Based on an emphasis of salvation tied to repentance, where sins are remitted to the Holy mother church, and satisfaction is required, the grace of God becomes exhausted by gifts received in baptism, and so penance becomes necessary as justice must be rendered to a holy God. During confession, while guilt may be pardoned, bodily punishment was still required. While God’s grace is the impetus for all our meritorious acts, it becomes tied to works, because our forgiveness is not secure unless we make propitiation to atone for our sin. Tertullian states, “All this exomologesis (does), that may enhance repentance, may honor God by its fear of the incurred danger; may, by itself pronouncing against the sinner, stand in the stead of God’s indignation, and by temporal mortification (I will not say frustrate, but)expunge eternal punishments. Therefore while it abases the man, it raises him; while it covers him with squalor, it renders his name clean; while it accuses, it excuses, while it condemns, it absolves. The less quarter you give yourself, the more (believe me) will God give you. (Tertullian On Repentance, IX, end) While the church accepts the concept of satisfaction and merit that Tertullian defines, his extreme ethical rigor and adherence to only one post-baptismal repentance are rejected. For Tertullian, the works of Christ did not go beyond guilt satisfaction and so this promoted a temporal self-punishment and a need to avoid the suffering of purgatory by continuous meritorious works. His association with the Montanist sect lead to a strong emphasis on purity and ascetic practices to seek favor and merit which included fasting to intensify prayer, vigils, vows of celibacy and holiness. He writes on very specific conduct and counsels on the veiling of virgins, the behavior of women, the debauchery of the theatre, the adultery of second marriages, and public conduct. Because Tertullian believed the church was too institutionalized and needed a more charismatic approach, he strongly emphases purity and holiness. By the end of his life he is directly defying the church and blasting the non charismatic’s as appetite driven and worldly.
Another type of asceticism, associated with the gift of weeping, martyrdom and intercessory prayer is found in The Martyrdom of Perpetua, written by Perpetua and Saturas, which describes a charismata vision where Perpetua’s dead brother is affected by her prayers in this life as he suffers in purgatory. Her deep sorrow and moaning release her brother from purgatory and her meritorious acts redeem his punishment, allowing him to move on to a higher heavenly state. Her vision is the earliest and clearest description of the doctrine of purgatory though it represents the common ideology of Christians at this time regarding the intermediate state. The context of martyrdom begins to take on a new meaning as Christians that suffer for others become exempt from purgatory. This motivates Christians to do good works to escape the sufferings of purgatory and intertwines with ascetic practices as a mediatory method to guarantee a more elect state.
For Augustine, asceticism is a tenuous balance between “almsgiving” to propitiate God for sin and God’s prenvenient Grace, where our spirits are drawn towards God. Augustine is the first to bring grace into such a prominent place in medieval Catholic doctrine, and it affects every aspect of the Christian life. Building on Romans 9:11, where we are called according to God’s purposes, not according to our acts, Augustine asserts that God’s grace precedes all our works and so this controls the concept of merit. In crowning our own merits, God does nothing more than crown his own gifts. In The City of God (Book 21, ch.13-27) Augustine gives the first detailed description of purgatory with an assumption that the practice is commonplace in society. “But temporary punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by others after death,by others both now and then; but all of them before that last and strictest judjement.”(Ibid. p.572) He promoted the idea that the weight of sins, either venial or mortal, cannot be determined in this life, and this insecurity is good because it avoids any presumptuous behavior. For Augustine, Christ’s atonement took care of our sin, and baptism cleanses us of this original sin, but sins committed after baptism must be dealt with through repentance, confession and satisfaction. Augustine believed the best place to draw near to God was in the monastic community where these methods of ascetic behavior may draw one near enough to God to avoid purgatory altogether. “For some of the dead, indeed the prayer of the church, or of pious individuals is heard; but it is for those who, having been regenerated in Christ, did not spend their lives so wickedly that they can be judged unworthy of such compassion, nor so well that they can be considered to have no need of it.”(Ibid. p.578)
Theresa of Avila’s asceticism marked a shift from predominately outward acts of piety to the strict discipline of interior or internal spiritual contemplation. Though she penned many books, The Interior Castle was one of her most popular works. Intended for her nuns, she delves deeply into the prayer life of a believer and the stages one goes through in order to draw closer to God. She uses a castle as a metaphor for the contemplative soul and this castle consists of seven interior courts or chambers. The entrance to the inner courts is only accessible through the successive stages of the outer courts. It is both a process and concept that resembles the seven heavens. Teresa was famous for her many visions and mystical ecstasies and was prompted by St. John of the Cross to pen her revelations.
Margery Kempe played a large role in the 12th century cultural shift towards viewing the Lord as a more human and approachable God. Her strict asceticism was enacted through paramystical visions, and a “gift of tears.” This physical piety was displayed by an affective devotion to the human suffering Christ. The mysticism of Margery included strict penitence and self-mortification, which was more apparent early on in her ministry as she donned hair cloth, fasted, did lengthy prayer vigils and tried to convince her husband that a celibate lifestyle was more honoring to God. After a vision from the Lord, she turned her outward remorse to an inward focus directed towards an internal penance. Through long periods of meditation, she felt a call to focus on the salvation of souls through her emotive gifting. “I have ordained thee to be a mirror amongst them, to have great sorrow, so that they should take example by thee, and have some little sorrow in their hearts for their sins, so they might there through be saved.” (pg. 130 The Book of Margery Kempe) Through weeping and public outbursts she operated as an evangelical priest traveling and reaching out to not only her community but the greater world at large. Margery influenced the ascetic movement through her affective approach by bringing a popular piety to the culture apart from the influence of the elitist church.
The thrust towards asceticism seems to be connected to the mediatorial role of the Church. When Martin Luther rejects the concept of merit, a more individual approach to God replaces the community aspect. This fosters alternative ways to approach God along with ascetic traditions, such as prayer, faith, the scriptures, preaching, etc… But, the Protestants will continue to struggle with a lack of biblically based theology on spirituality. It is the Anabaptists who will return to a form of piety that suggests the legacy of asceticism and the quest to be closer to God. This legacy can be seen today in a revival of the mystical and experiential approach to worship. Prayer walls, communion, instuctional fasting, and candle lightings are markers of a return to a more holistic approach to spirituality, embracing both the personal and the communal aspect of reverence in a non-formulaic approach. While the majority of Americans may think asceticism is a minimalistic decorating style, it’s contribution to Christianity has been significant.