Neoplatonism

Most of the Church Fathers were soaked in the classics of Roman scholarship: St Jerome had to put himself under a special penance to stop himself from reading them. The pagan philosophies themselves were still strong and active. The Alexandrian philosopher Plotinus (ad 205-70) had inspired an ascetic, Neoplatonic, or 'gnostic' tradition within the early Christian Church, and his prolific writings on the joys of contemplation lived long after him.14 Plotinus believed that all physical matter was inherently evil. It clogged up the soul and kept it earthbound, when its true celestial existence depended on weightlessness, mingling with the universe above to attain the state of the pure absolute Being, the One. The pure soul had minimal bodily needs, and had to renounce all sexual desire; chastity was an essential qualification. Neoplatonic asceticism was widespread among intellectuals of the small farm or villa population, and among poor but spiritually ambitious civic scholars such as St Augustine (354-430), who was converted to contemplative asceticism by Plotinus, and later turned to his mother's religion, Christianity, to help him sublimate his strong sexual urges by adopting celibacy, or chastity.15 Chastity had always been an attribute of priesthood but was now the ultimate ascetic challenge for the Christian believer.

Thanks to the Neoplatonic-Manichaean 'twofold' philosophy of the outer body and inner soul, ordinary Christians now had two bodies to look after—and one of them was inherently evil, full of burning lust, and a mere mortal shell. As St Paul described it, 'Though our outer person is wasting away, the inner is being renewed.' St Athanasius explained this 'two-body' early Christian physiology in a sermon On Sickness and Health: 'In short, one must know that the body is composed of members, but the inner person is not composed of bodily members, but rather possesses the significance of the member's action...so too the intellectual substance of the soul accomplishes the entire work of the commandments with the five senses.'16 The duty of the Christian ascetic anchorite (anakhoretes, from anakhoreo, 'retire') was to subdue the natural sensory impulses that threatened the inner person, by literally starving them into submission, sense by sense. The shrivelled bodies of the anchorites told this tale precisely: sleep deprivation, semi-starvation, minimal water, no comforts, hard labour, coarse clothing, and unwashed skin. Jesus' asceticism was moderate compared to some of his followers. He went into the desert and fasted for forty days and forty nights; but Saint Anthony (ad 251-356) spent twenty years there. The penances of the holiest ascetic (male or female) were the most severe; the monk St Pachomius only ate every third day, though lesser anchorites were allowed a meagre daily ration of bread with salt, and water.17 Like the actions of the Vedic yogi, anchorite asceticism contained pathological self-wounding elements deliberately designed to test the will and train the soul to a point just short of suicide. Many, many anchorites underwent sufficient suffering to attain sainthood in later centuries.18

During the first four centuries the Christian debate on spiritual virtues of continence and celibacy was urgent and highly charged. A wave of self-mortifying sects arose after Jesus' death, experimenting with every form of bodily abasement.19 The burning fires of lust were the worst of evils—and so difficult to put out. Commentators such as St John Cassian, St Augustine, and St Benedict regarded male nocturnal emissions as a special challenge, especially when male members were gathered together under one roof. St Pachomius' monastic Rules on celibacy included covering knees when sitting together; not bending down or pulling tunics up too high when doing laundering;keeping the eyes lowered, avoiding direct glances, never performing 'intimacies' such as bathing or oiling one another, or removing thorns from the skin; never talking in the dark or holding hands, and always keeping a distance. Nudity was forbidden, even when alone, and for this reason bathing was discouraged, except for the sick or aged; under St Benedict's Rules, even washing was a complicated procedure that involved keeping the body concealed at all times with different bits of clothing.20

Asceticism was either highly democratic or highly anarchic, and was not easily controlled.21 St Athanasius' Life of Anthony (published only a year after Anthony's death) became the inspiration for a surge of Christian rock-dwelling anchorites pursuing 'the myth of the desert' in Egypt. Pachomius (ad 290-347) founded the first disciplined monastic settlement of anchorites in order to house them, which had quickly multiplied to thousands of monks during his lifetime (and became worryingly wealthy from their daily labours). By the time St Simeon Stylites (387-459) drew crowds from nearby Antioch to see him perched on top of his 70-foot rock pillar, Pachomine monasteries were being visited by a constantly increasing stream of devout pilgrims from all over newly Christianized Europe—the 'Egyptomania' of the age.22 Despite certain reservations, the Catholic Church was being inexorably shaped and moulded by popular religious asceticism, both in the desert and in the towns.

The Apostles—including St Paul—had always carefully distinguished between 'moderate' asceticism for most of their flock and 'advanced' asceticism for the 'ardent';and were careful never to impugn sex in marriage (though strictly for the purposes of procreation). From the third and fourth centuries ad onwards, with the numbers of ardent ascetics increasing, the politics of the Church swung constantly between the moderate and radical ascetic camps. Radical ascetics were at first removed from bishoprics, but then returned; or moved to activism in Corinth, or Jerusalem, or Gaul. One significant purity law that was resurrected after the Council of Laodicea in ad 352 forbade women to serve as priests or preside over churches; but ordaining the sexual celibacy of the male clergy was evidently a tougher proposition. Ever since Nicaea internal debates had raged, with married priests at first defended (in 362) so long as they had married before ordination and their wife had been a virgin—not a widow, a divorced woman, or a concubine. But the Church puritans were not to be denied. In ad 385-6 Pope Siricius, pressured by ascetic propagandists centred on Jerome and his circle in Rome and Bethlehem, finally persuaded the bishops to bind the higher clergy to 'inviolate celibacy' and offered the promise of a pure priesthood vowed to chastity. Thus another ancient purity law was reinstated.

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