Lesson 25: The Ascetic Challenge

The age of imperial Christianity raised profound questions about the place of Christianity in the world. One answer to the newfound assimilation of Christianity and the world was withdrawal, in the form of asceticism. The fourth century was a fertile time for the growth of radical forms of ascetic practice.



Askesis, Athanasius, Antony, hermit, Cenobitic, Pachomius



The age of imperial Christianity raised profound questions about the place of Christianity in the world. One answer to the newfound assimilation of Christianity and the world was withdrawal, in the form of asceticism. The fourth century was a fertile time for the growth of radical forms of ascetic practice.

The word “asceticism” comes from the Greek askesis, which simply means discipline. It is commonly used to refer to athletes and their training. It also refers to training on a spiritual level. Askesis is a critical element of monasticism.

Monasticism became widespread during the fourth century but its roots travel deeper – to the third century hermits and, in their eyes, to the commands of Christ himself.

A great deal of knowledge we have on early monasticism comes from the bishop Athanasius of Alexandria (who wrote the letter that included the finalized canon.) Athanasius is widely believed to be the author of the Life of Antony. This biography was already a Christian classic during Antony’s lifetime, gaining readers across the Roman Empire who were inspired by his example.

Antony of Egypt was born into a Christian family in the third century. This detail is important; many people were born into Christian families because Christianity was becoming more and more widespread after the persecution of the mid-3rd century. When he was around the age of twenty, his parents died, leaving him in emotional and spiritual turmoil. One day he went to church and heard a sermon as he had never heard one before; he felt that the preacher was addressing him directly in his sermon, about Jesus’ command to sell everything he had and give to the poor.

He heard a command to live his life perfectly, not just to the best of his ability – Christ had taught his followers to sell everything they owned to live solely for the sake of God’s Kingdom. Antony took this command seriously. He noticed that he had been living with a personal disconnect and inauthenticity towards God. Immediately he sold all that he had – his home, his inheritance, all his belongings – and began a life of spiritual discipline and prayer. His goal was to turn his heart fully toward Christ and away from the world. Antony had no template for this kind of life from another person.

On the fringes of the hostile Egyptian desert, Antony lived a solitary life and waged war with his body and with the Devil himself with the help of the Holy Spirit. He was not experiencing martyrdom in the arena, but he became a martyr daily to himself. He minimizes physical comforts by eating once a day, sleeping without a pillow, persevering despite the heat, bugs, and animals that would descend upon him during years in the desert.

Antony was able to slowly “perfect” himself and gained the ability to see visions of God and to perform miracles – though he would deny that any of this ability came from himself. Sometimes he dealt with pride after attaining a new level of holiness, but then he would repent and become even more devoted to God.

In the mid-4th century Anthony died humbly, buried in secret without any pomp or circumstance, but monasticism continued to spread across the Christian landscape long after his death. His fame spread. Although Antony had been a solitary monk – an eremitic monk – others wanted to follow his example in communities. Monasteries of men who wanted to practice askesis in communities formed in Egypt, then throughout Asia Minor and to the West. Eventually monasteries could be found throughout the entire Christian world. It was originally a men’s movement but spread to women, too. There were fewer woman hermits, but many women formed holy sisterhoods of nuns.

Monasticism became increasingly institutionalized. It was given patterns, rules governing monks’ and nuns’ way of life. Augustine of Hippo, whom we will meet soon, wrote a monastic rule that shows up in a letter to a group of quarrelling nuns. Later the Rule of Benedict would spread across Europe.

Monasticism was within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy. Athanasius intentionally emphasizes that Antony was under the authority of the local bishops despite his unconventional form of living. The monastic movement did not upset the growing power of the institutional church.


Behind the idea of monasticism lay a stark rejection of compromise. With Christianity’s rapid growth, it had become quite easy to be a Christian. The cost was no longer great, for the persecutions had ceased and Christianity was now state-sanctioned and increasingly normal. Monasticism focused on radical realization of the gospel – strict obedience, and not cultural, nominal Christianity. Christians who adopted a monastic lifestyle sought to perfect their wills by turning away from ordinary, material life.

Monastic life’s purpose was sanctification – the process of becoming more and more holy, more and more like Christ. To be “saved,” monks and nuns believed, was not simply to be granted eternal life and live however one wanted to in between now and eternity. Salvation and sanctification were intertwined, involving a turning towards God and away from one’s old flesh. It is not the mere imposition of a moral code, but a lifestyle designed to help its adherents mortify the flesh and live unto Christ. Like Christ, they wanted to grow in love for the Father.

Monasticism has its roots not only in Jesus’ commands but also in Paul’s injunction to “be transformed.”

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:1-2 (ESV)

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