Different forms of christian ascetic life

In this paper I will speak about the etymology of the word asceticism and then about the origin of Christian asceticism, about the development of this in several directions.By giving some examples of important figures in the development of asceticism I want to present the importance accorded in those times to the Christian life, and the holiness of those times.

The origins of the word asceticism is from the Greek- ???????- askesis and it means exercise or training, but in the sense of athletic training. It looks for the arduous physical training that the Greek athletes were doing for a "perfect bodily development and for the admiration for the unusual powers of physical endurance. It was a self-training by restraint and exercise."[1] Athletic askesis ("training"), involving the ideal of bodily fitness and excellence, was developed to ensure the highest possible degree of physical fitness in an athlete. In the past, the ancient Greek athletes preparing for physical contests, such as the Olympic Games, disciplined their bodies by enduring difficult physical tests. They also were abstaining from various normal pleasures. The beginnings of asceticism lie in man's attempts to achieve various ultimate goals or ideals such as the development of the "whole" person, human creativity, ideas, the "self," or skills demanding technical proficiency. The term was brought in to religious realm, not to express the perfecting and improving the physical body or for the best accomplishment of a certain form of physical activity, but for expressing the development of higher powers belonging to the spirit. The Apostle Paul is speaking first time about askesis, but without naming it. He just used the icon of the physical training for expressing the hard training that a Christian must do to win the accomplishment. This term was introduced by Clement of Alexandria and Origen, by giving it a monachal and religious connotation. The monasteries are called training fields and the monks are those who are training.[2]

Majority of the scholars tend to believe that the Essenians were those who influenced John the Baptist and some of the early disciples of Christ to live an ascetic life for God. The Essenians were a Jewish sect which existed a century before the birth of Christ. They are believed to be the community of Qumran, the custodians of the so-called „Dead Sea Scrolls". The community from Qumran was grounded on the rule of celibacy. In the same category we can include the Therapeutai of Alexandria who won their loneliness by quitting their families. The community was considering themselves being the a Spiritual Temple and they were offering to God a permanent spiritual cult.[3]For Philon of Alexandria, the Essenians represent the active life, but the Therapeutai symbolize the contemplative life, because they did not work at all and they were resuming contemplating God, abandoning their relatives.[4]

In the second century, in the Roman Empire appeared a direction to depreciate the matter, the physic life and the sexuality. The motives are complex and we can mention the exacerbation of the Christian waiting of the second coming of Jesus, the influences of judeo - Christianity, the oriental religions and sects, low nativity of the high class of the Empire. The judeo - Christianity presents sometimes an ascetic character and to this direction aligns the Ebionites, who were celebrating the Eucharist with water.[5] The Gnosticism is a dualist system which opposes the unknown Lord to demiurge, the creator of visible world. The most important Gnostic is Valentinian of Egypt and he is one of the few who admits marriage. Marcion is a heretic which founded his own church. He rejected the Old Testament and the material creation. The Marcions' ethic is a protest against the creator of visible world. He avoids people and avoids to make the world grew through procreation. The marcionites were promising to give up marriage. Under Marc Aurelius, Montan with two prophets were announcing the end of the world. The montanists are less rigorous than the marcionites. The Encratites were a heretic group who believed that the meat, the wine and the marriage were impure and abstained from them. The name „encratites" became later a technical one for those who were believed to practice a form of asceticism with a heretical character.

But the true Christian ascetic life begins in the place of lower Egypt at the end of the third century. This time coincides with the decree of Constantin, the first Christian Byzantine Emperor, when the persecutions of the Christians were stopped and Christianity was declared as being legal. The first monk known is a hierarch, the Bishop Narcis of Jerusalem, who in the times of emperor Septimius Sever ( the end of second century and the beginning of third century ), retreats in desert. After many years he is coming back to his hierarchical throne.

In the beginnings of Christian asceticism we can observe several kinds of ascetics and of their organizational life. The most known forms of ascetic life are the cenobites and the hermits. We also can approach a third kind, but not very known, the sarabaites. In the next part I will try to speak about each of these three kinds in turn.

The cenobites are the monks who are living in a community under the government of a single elder. This type it is found from the time of the apostles. The crowd of believers from Jerusalem is one of this kind. In the Acts of the Apostles is being said:"The multitude of believers was of one heart and one soul, neither said any of them that any of the things which he possessed was his own but they had all things in common. They sold their possessions and property and divided them to all, as any man had need... For neither was there any among them that lacked; foe as many possessed fields or houses, sold them and brought the price of the things that they sold and laid them before the apostles' feet: and distribution was made to every man as he had need." ( Acts 4:32 - 5; 2:45 ). The cenobites' discipline grew up from those who separated from the people in order to not be affected by the lax Christians. They started to live a disciplined life alone, separated from society and their relatives, and came to be known as monks or monazontes. Joining all together why was known as cenobites and their cells were called caenobia. The first monk who organized all the rules for monasteries in caenobic type was Saint Pahomius who lived in desert and established many monasteries. Through his holy life he made a lot of disciples, the number at the time of his death was around of 7000 monks.[6] Along with Saint Pahomius, we find Saint Anthony the Great, named „the father of monks". He is the founder of the hermitic kind of asceticism and his life was written by Saint Athanasius of Alexandria in the book Vita Antonii - The Life of Anthony. Saint Anthony made of asceticism not only a way of living, but also a way to God. As we see in the life of Saint Anthony, at the age of 20 he sold all his assets and retreat in a hut near his village. This is how the first ascetics started in those days. After many years he retreated in the desert. The hermits chose a solitary life in praying and in war with the devils' temptations to advance further in the contemplation of God. Some said that they were afraid of persecutions or because of the intolerance of community living, but it was not true. The followers were called anchorites, meaning withdrawers. They took the example of Saint John the Baptist or Elijah, and they retreat in the desert to fight de devils in open war.[7] The hermit group is called the lavra, which is composed from a number of caverns or huts at a distance from each other. In every cavern or hut a hermit was housed. They all came together every Saturday night for the vigil, followed by the Eucharist. After the service they were taken a common meal and received allotment of provisions and material for work for the next week. [8]

The Sarabaites is one of the most controversial kinds of ascetic manifestation, a faithless one, which is represented by Ananias and Saphirra, and which was severely forbidden by Apostle Peter. The word sarabaites means in Egyptian persons who have deserted their communities and live each to himself. They disobey the Gospel commands and disregard the rules of communities, being outside all control from the elders. The do not follow any rules and live as they please. Their intentions and faith are different from those of cenobites. They seem to be like cenobites by living two or three in a cell, but they are free from the elders, going where they like and satisfying whatever passion they have. They are seeking wealth and think that God is false or impotent because He has promised to give sufficient food and clothing and yet cannot or will not.[9]

One of the most extreme forms of ascetic life and in the same time an original one is that of the pillar-saints. The pillar-saints are those who live in isolation from the world on the head of a pillar or a column, in a small place without roof. The ascet can only stand or kneel, with no space to lie down. They only could eat if someone is willing to give them. This form of asceticism appeared in Syria, in first half o forth century. For the saints of the Church, the signification of the pillar is very deep. It helped them to arise their mind for the contemplation of The Holy Trinity. Many of them chose this kind of life because they wanted to „escape" the visitors who wanted to see them and ask for spiritual advices. But they were seeking loneliness to find God in their pray. This kind of asceticism was thought to be a form of „craziness" for Christ. Saint Ephrem of Syria characterizes them as being „those who are staying at the service very late and wake up very early for the service. All day long and all night long all they do is praying. Instead of the church, they are making themselves temple of The Holy Spirit. Instead of altars, they gave their own minds. And as offerings they bring to God their prayers."[10] In this class of solitary monks who were practiced a severe form of asceticism we can include the solitaries chained to rocks either in a cave or the open air. One of the most celebrated „stationary monks" on the pillar is Symeon the Elder ( 389 - 459 ), who remained for more than thirty years on his column of thirty feet high near Antioch.

In the early stages of asceticism, around Constantinople was founded a type of monachal life. This kind it is known under the name of the „sleepless" monks. They were founded by Alexander of Chalcis and they settled at Constantinople. The large community of monks was divided in three choirs and they kept up a ceaseless chant of psalms, hymns and prayers in relay throughout the day and the night. [11] They were fallowing the Saint Pauls' words from I Thessalonians 5 : 17 : „Pray continually!" because the prayer is the source and in the same time the most intimate form of our life.

One of the most important figures of early monasticism is Saint Basil the Great ( 329 - 379 ) who gave an another outward form to the monastic life. He spent a year in the monachal communities in Egypt, Palestin and Syria before founding a monastery on his family estate. For Saint Basil, the monastic life was a communal one, as giving the framework of a perfect Christian life of brotherly love and care, with the asceticism of service and humility, and penitence of sin. He is also the founder of Vasiliades[12] , and the liturgical prayer from the monastery was similar to that of Pachomius - work and meditative reading. Even he did not wrote any rules, his so-called rules are spiritual counsels and commentaries on Scripture.„Nevertheless his influence was great and lasting. By turning away from the hermit life and from individual feats of asceticism, he originated a monastic life that exactly suited the genius of Greek lands, and all the many monasteries of the Byzantine empire and indeed all the later monasteries of Russia look to him as patriarch much as western monks look to Benedict. Of Benedict nothing is known but his rule; from Saint Basil we have everything but a rule."[13]

From the beginning we see that the asceticism had a lot of forms. Some of them were heretical and disappeared such as Gnostics, Marcionists, Montanists and Encratites. Those that are present in our days where developed by the holy fathers in those days and kept the rules till know. Now, the cenobites kind are very common in th Eastern Europe, Greece ( Mount Athos ), Jerusalem and Mount Sinai. We also know many monks who embraced the Pahomius form of asceticism, the hermit kind. During the time we have to mention the influences and the big input in the development of asceticism and monachism of fathers such as Saint Anthony, Saint Pahomius, Saint Basil the Great and later Saint Theodor and Saint Paisios[14] ( 18th century ) Without their writings and holy life, the monachism would not be reached such a high level of organization and holiness.

In a general manner, the asceticism bans the excess. From the times of Saint Anthony until now the fundamental virtue of the ascet is the clairvoyance, which permits avoiding of any extreme, of any eccentricity or exaggeration. The presence of moderation, harmony and measure ( Saint John Casians' sobrietas ) are a very good indication of absolute presence of The Holy Spirit. The asceticism is not the killing of life in us, but is the killing of the weakness, a way to life. The purpose of Christian asceticism, in the way that is it understood in eastern and western tradition, implies discipline of the integral person, body and soul, so the person to learn not to live only as human existence, but like sons of God also.


  1. Chadwick, Owen, Western Asceticism ( SCM Press LTD, London, 1958 ).
  2. Desprez, Vincent, Moine de Liguge, Le Monachisme primitive. Des origins jusqu'au concile d'Ephese, ( Abbaye de Bellefontaine, Begrolles en Mauges, 1998 ).
  3. Hardman, O., The ideals of asceticism: an essay in the comparative study of religion. (London Society for promoting Christian knowledge, Macmillan Co., 1924 ).
  4. Knowles, David, Christian Monasticism, ( World University Library, London, 1969).
  5. Olteanu, Dragos Mihai, Sfintii care stateau pe stalpi, ( The saints who are standing on pillars), Lumina Lina, 2009. http://www.ziarullumina.ro/articole;1145;1;30980;0;Sfintii-care-locuiau-pe-stalpi.html ( 2 february 2010).
  6. Staniloae, Preot Profesor Dr. Dumitru, Spiritualitate Ortodoxa : Ascetica si Mistica, ( Orthodox Spirituality : Asceticism and Misticism). ( Editura Institutului Biblic si de Misiune al Bisericii Ortodoxe Romane, Bucuresti, 1992 ).
  7. O. Hardman, The ideals of asceticism: an essay in the comparative study of religion. (London Society for promoting Christian knowledge, Macmillan Co., 1924 ) p. 5
  8. Preot Profesor Dr. Dumitru Staniloae, Spiritualitate Ortodoxa : Ascetica si Mistica, ( Orthodox Spirituality : Asceticism and Misticism). ( Editura Institutului Biblic si de Misiune al Bisericii Ortodoxe Romane, Bucuresti, 1992 ), p. 8
  9. Vincent Desprez, Moine de Liguge, Le Monachisme primitive. Des origins jusqu'au concile d'Ephese, ( Abbaye de Bellefontaine, Begrolles en Mauges, 1998 ) p. 47
  10. Ibid. 71
  11. Ibid. 108
  12. The scholars are speaking about several reasons on why the asceticism was so popular in those times. The historic environment was pro Christians after the conversion of Constantine and the persecutions stopped. Even it is difficult to generalize, many think the Christians wanted to revive the martyr spirit to have heroes for faith. The ascetics fought against the forces of evil and suffered for their faith.
  13. Owen Chadwick, Western Asceticism ( SCM Press LTD, London, 1958 ) p. 267
  14. David Knowles, Christian Monasticism, ( World University Library, London, 1969 ) p. 20
  15. Ibid. p. 269
  16. Dragos Mihai Olteanu, Sfintii care stateau pe stalpi, ( The saints who are standing on pillars), Lumina Lina, 2009. http://www.ziarullumina.ro/articole;1145;1;30980;0;Sfintii-care-locuiau-pe-stalpi.html ( 2 february 2010 )
  17. David Knowles, Christian Monasticism, ( World University Library, London, 1969 ) p. 127
  18. Orphanage, hospital, girls and widow hostels and workshops for the unemployed poor attached to the monastery.
  19. David Knowles, Christian Monasticism, ( World University Library, London, 1969 ) p. 22
  20. Saint Paisios renewed the monachal life from romanian monasteries in the 18th century.

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