Tag Archives: Antony the Great

Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism (1995)

David Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism (1995)

Thesis: “Athanasius’ embrace of ascetic Christians and their values strengthened his political position and helped him to build an Egyptian Church more dependent on the Alexandrian episcopate. . . . My goal . . . is to provide this oft-repeated picture of Athanasius and asceticism with a stronger historical foundation and a more precise understanding of how asceticism advanced Athanasius’ political programme” (13-14).

Ch. 1: “Chapter 1 studies Athanasius’ efforts to control the life of virgins [= female ascetics] in the city of Alexandria” (11) in order to isolate them from city life, and thus prevent them from associating with the Arians.[i] In fourth-century Alexandria, groups of Christian intellectuals attracted female ascetics, who, by eschewing sex (and, thus, marriage) had the leisure to study philosophy. Athanasius found this practice distasteful. He emphasized the female ascetics’ title of “brides of Christ,” arguing that, just like normal wives, they should remain cloistered in their homes, attending on their bridegroom (i.e., Christ) through prayer. Athanasius’ arguments about virgins fit in with his larger political program: he was attempting to refute the position of Hieracas, who said that marriage belonged to the era before Christ and that only sexual renunciants could truly be Christians. Athanasius, on the other hand, affirmed that both virgins and married people could be Christians. Likewise, Christian academies (the locus of Arian Christianity) had many women ascetics for members; in attempting to sequester virgins, Athanasius was trying to deprive the Arians of a large part of their support base while increasing the size of his own.

Ch. 2: “Chapter 2 turns to Athanasius’ dealings with the desert monks, the semi-eremitical monks of the Nitrian desert and the coenobitic monks of the Thebaid, and describes a strategy not of isolation, but of inclusion” (11-12), to win them over to his cause. In dealing with the Nitrian monks, Athanasius developed his idea that monastics and clergy should intersect—he argued that (the desert) monks should be subordinate to (the city-bound) clergy, and he appointed monks to clerical positions. He applied this framework in his dealings with the Pachomian monastic community: he brokered a truce between two Pachomian leaders, and he all but appointed a successor after another leader’s death. Finally, during his desert exile, he launched a literary campaign to rally the desert monks to his cause against the Arians—that is, arguing that they should stop being hospitable to everyone, regardless of theological commitments (a hallmark of monastic Christianity), and only recognize Athanasian Christians as real Christians. Broadly speaking, Athanasius believed that withdrawing into the desert (anachoresis) “did not sever [a monk’s] more basic tie to the wider Church” (139).

Ch. 3: “Chapter 3 outlines Athanasius’ spirituality and shows how it assimilates ascetic values into a vision that can also encompass ordinary Christians.” Where chapters 1 and 2 are social-historical in nature, this chapter is historical-theological.[ii] This chapter outlines how Athanasius de-emphasized philosophical meditation about God as a Christian spiritual practice, instead emphasizing (physical) asceticism. For Athanasius, asceticism was a virtue that all Christians—not just monks—should strive for. However, since Athanasius believed that the Church consisted of different kinds of people (e.g., monastics and non-monastics alike), this ascetic ideal found different practical outworkings; Athanasius believed all Christians could resist temptation and ward of the devil through prayers, vigils, renouncing some sex, food, and wealth, and studying the Scriptures—hallmarks of ascetic discipline. This limited ascetic program was an especially good fit for the wealthy Christians “whose allegiance to the Athanasian episcopate was the glue that held together the fragile earthly counterpart of the heavenly ‘single symphony in the faith’ that Athanasius so eloquently praised” (144).

Ch. 4: Deals with the Life of Antony, which “epitomizes Athanasius’ ascetic program in both its practical and theoretical aspects,” portraying Antony as “the perfect instance of human appropriation of the Word’s victory over sin and death,” as opposed to other fourth-century Egyptians, who cast Antony “as a spiritual patron, a teacher of wisdom, or a monastic party leader” (13). Athanasius claims to have met Antony several times; Brakke finds evidence that Athanasius’s claims to have been a student of Antony’s were exaggerated; Athanasius probably met Antony only once, and briefly, at that. Brakke then situates the Life of Antony within the broader fourth-century reception of Antony’s legacy, showing that Athanasius dramatically reworked the Antony tradition to paint a picture of his ideal monk (who was non-philosophical, anti-Arian, deeply ascetic, and loyal to the Athanasian episcopate), set up that ideal as a model to be imitated, and thereby consolidate support for his position over against those of his adversaries.

 

NOTES

[i] Brakke uses Athanasius’ terminology of “virgin” to refer to “female ascetics,” though he acknowledges that it is unsatisfactory. I choose to refer to them, by and large, as “female ascetics” or “women ascetics.”

[ii] Richard Valantasis, review of Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism, Journal of Religion 77 (1997): 293.

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Paul and Antony the Great: Christian Shamans

I’ve become convinced that early Christian mystic practice is, at root, shamanistic. Compare the initiation ritual of Siberian shamans with Paul’s conversion narrative and the story of how Antony the Great became a monk:

The shamanic vocation can be directly conferred on someone by the spirits, or it can be a family inheritance. Yet even when it is inherited, Siberian shamans are still supposed to undergo individual initiation in order to obtain knowledge and acquire supernatural aids. Visited by the spirits, the shaman initially goes through a period of deep psychic depression and illness; these only subside when, having crossed the desert of death, he or she comes back to life and learns to control personal spirits in order to perform ecstatic journeys whose purpose is usually healing through exorcism.

Ioan P. Couliano, Out of This World: Otherworldly Journeys from Gilgamesh to Albert Einstein (Boston: Shambhala, 2001), 40.

The initiation experience of the Siberian shamans above closely parallels the sanctification process for early Christian (monastic saints) — a protracted period of struggle against sin, the flesh, and sometimes demons and/or Satan; followed by a complete mastery of his/her own actions and the ability to work miracles and/or have ecstatic experiences.

For example, the New Testament records that Paul, after his conversion experience, fell deathly ill, was healed miraculously, then lived in seclusion in Arabia for three years, before returning to Jerusalem to become a Christian missionary. Paul implies that his years in Arabia were marked by mystical experiences, and even in his later life he had ecstatic, mystical experiences, both during worship services and at other times, and is reported to have been able to heal the sick and resurrect the dead.

Another example is St. Antony the Great, the first of the desert monks of Egypt. After his conversion experience, he lived as a hermit in the Egyptian desert, where he fought the demons, Satan, and against his own temptations to sin; each of these struggles left him deeply wounded, but God would revive him. Eventually, he conquered all of his spiritual adversaries and gained miraculous abilities, like clairvoyance and miraculous healing.

So, both Paul’s and Anthony’s experiences fit the pattern for initiation into shamanic practice: they underwent a serious mental/physical struggle, followed by a full recovery, which was accompanied by spiritual ability and ecstatic adeptness. Their stories provide evidence that shamanism is not limited solely to mimetic or mythic religions, like those of tribal hunter-gatherer societies, but also is a part of theoretic religions like Christianity, where beliefs are usually separated from ritual and mythos.

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Kleos for Antony the Great?

​I was reading Athanasius’ Life of Antony for one of my classes, and I came across something really interesting. Here’s the text that struck me:

Nor was the Lord then forgetful of Antony’s wrestling [with demons], but was at hand to help him. So looking up he [Antony] saw the roof as it were opened, and a ray of light descending to him. The demons suddenly vanished, the pain of his body straightway ceased, and the building was again whole. But Antony feeling the help, and getting his breath again, and being freed from pain, besought the vision which had appeared to him, saying, “Where wert thou? Why didst thou not appear at the beginning to make my pains to cease?” And a voice came to him, “Antony, I was here, but I waited to see thy fight; wherefore since thou hast endured, and hast not been worsted, I will ever be a succour to thee, and will make thy name known everywhere.” Having heard his, Antony arose and prayed, and received such strength that he perceived that he had more power in his body than formerly. And he was then about thirty-five years old.

(Athanasius, Life of Antony 10. From NPNF, second series, vol. 4. Emphasis added.

I think it’s interesting how Athanasius portrays Antony here; it’s as if Antony is a Christian form of a hero from ancient Greek epic. First, Antony secures divine favor specifically because he is a courageous fighter against his enemies, the demons — later, he even squares off with Satan himself and is victorious (Life of Antony 41). Second, God promises Antony fame on Earth for his bravery in battle. Now, one would expect God to promise Antony with a heavenly reward for being so courageous when fighting his demonic adversaries, so it’s a little surprising to see God offer him Earthly fame instead.

God’s promise of everlasting fame for Antony sounds remarkably like the heroic goal of kleos (“fame,” “repute”). For instance, Achilles’ goal in fighting as bravely and as fiercely as he did in the Trojan War (as narrated in the Iliad) was to win kleos on the earth, since after death, all that awaited him as a shadowy existence in Hades.

Moreover, Athanasius’ focus here is all the more interesting, since just a few paragraphs before, he has Antony hearing and obeying verses from the Gospel of Matthew, which has a strong focus on believers getting rewarded for their righteousness in the “kingdom of Heaven.” It seems strange to me that Athanasius would have Antony immediately obeying Jesus’ commands in Matthew, but would put Antony’s rewards on Earth, not Heaven. Thus, it’s my conclusion that Athanasius has God promising Antony kleos, in the same sort of way that Greek heroes, like Achilles, sought kleos while they were alive.

Further, I see two possible outworkings of this conclusion. First, Athanasius seems okay with earthly fame, at least for people who are worthy of it. Second, in setting up Antony as a model to be followed (his explicit goal, Life of Antony 94), Athanasius is also implicitly a share of
kleos for anyone who lives the same sort of life as Antony.

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