"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

2 Nov 2012

Christian Asceticism and the Demonisation of Woman

I briefly refer in my essay Asceticism (in A Philosophy of Tramping) to the legacy of Pauline Christianity, as it fostered the mistrust of women (or rather mistrust of men's own desires for women) carried forward into the monastic life of the Middle Ages—and even through to the present day. To understand just how severe this brand of asceticism could be, I've publish this post separately as an appendix; being superfluous to a treatise on tramping, but fascinating and engaging none the less. It was written as part of an abandoned book on Christianity—and apologies to my reader if small sections at the beginning are also cover in the main essay.

After the first Christian emperor, Constantine, had institutionalised Christianity by legal decree at the beginning of the fourth century CE, it was able to flourish without fear of persecution and become a regular feature of city life across the Roman Empire. But there were those who felt that the religion had become corrupt and soft, and were anxious to return to the pure form of Christianity they believed was practised by Jesus and his early disciples. These individuals were devout holy men, the first hermit monks from whom collectives of monks, or monasteries, would start developing across Europe. The fourth century found many of these holy men (and some celibate holy women) living in remote parts of the deserts of Egypt, Palestine and Syria. A description of the lives of just a few of these monks paints a graphic picture of the lengths some went to achieve their aim of asceticism. Confrontations with demons was a commonly used metaphor for the continual battle these fathers had with their own resolve to remain chaste and worthy of God.

St. Anthony & St. Paul (of Thebes)
The first of these, as reported first hand by Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, was Anthony. We are told that Anthony was daily set on by the demons to dissuade him from his holy mission. The devil himself warned the monk, ‘how difficult it is to attain the goal of virtue and the very hard work involved in achieving it’. But the virtue of the Desert Fathers was not the virtue sought either by Jesus or the Cynics, whose asceticism was aimed at living a simple life free from unnatural, not natural, desires. Even in the case of Jesus there is no evidence that unnatural desires included fornication. If Diogenes preferred masturbation as a way to relieve his sexual appetites, it was because he was in control of when and where to attend to his needs, other Cynics, such as Crates, appear to have had a very active sex life indeed. Not so with these holy men, most of whom seem to have been awakened by the desire to serve God (as ordained by Paul not Jesus) from a very young age. The aim of their asceticism seems to have been dominated by the need to resist carnal temptations at all costs and avoid eternal damnation in hell. In Anthony’s case the devil would nightly appear to him in his small cell in the form of a beautiful woman, ‘omitting no detail that might provoke lascivious thoughts, but Anthony called to the mind the fiery punishment of hell and the torment inflicted by worms: in this way he resisted the onslaught of lust.’
Not so fortunate another unnamed martyr, described by Jerome in his Life of Paul of Thebes below. Jerome describes how the earlier persecution of Christians under the emperors Decian and Valerian had reached epidemic proportions; another factor that led to devout Christians seeking refuge in remote desert areas. There were dozens of Christians more than willing to be martyred by the sword, but so sophisticated had the Romans become in breaking the very spirit of these martyrs, that they no longer afforded them the luxury of a quick death. They designed all kinds of elaborate torture to break the souls of Christians prior to them dying. Neither were they unaware of just how powerful was the vow of chastity and the sinister effects of Pauline Christianity in making women objects of fear and loathing. Not the racks and burning with red hot metal here. In the following passage Jerome, in poetic mood, describes a very unlikely torture indeed:

‘Another martyr, in the flower of his youth, was ordered to be taken off to a most delightful garden. There, amid the white lilies and red roses, beside which a gently murmuring stream meandered, while the wind plucked lightly at the leaves of the trees producing a soft whisper, he was made to lie down on a thick feather bed. He was left there, tied down by soft garlands to prevent him escaping. When everyone had gone away, a beautiful prostitute came up to him and began to stroke his neck with gentle caresses, and (what is improper even to relate) to touch his private parts with her hands: when his body was roused to lust as a result, this shameful conqueress lay down on top of him. The soldier of Christ did not know what to do or where to turn: he who had not yielded to tortures was being overcome by pleasure. At last, by divine inspiration, he bit off his tongue and spat it out in her face as she kissed him; and so the sense of lust was overcome by the sharp pain that replaced it.’

To better understand the terror that was generated in these devout holy men by thoughts of breaking their vow of chastity, it is necessary to get to the root of the fear itself. Far worse than biting off one’s tongue or submitting to the tortures imposed by their earthly persecutors, were the eternal horrors of hell that awaited anyone who failed to live a chaste life on earth. Nothing could be further from the teachings of the historical Jesus than the behaviour of these desert monks, illustrating the worst excesses and perversions of Christianity. And to illustrate just how perverse Christianity had become, one need look no further than that style of Christian literature known as the Apocalypses or Revelations, so called because they reveal visions about the future, particularly images of what might await one in heaven or hell (and of which Dante’s Divine Comedy is a satiric parody). I quote from two examples of this genre, the first being the Apocalypse of Peter, thought to have been written around the first half of the second century. Well known in early Christian churches until dropped from the canon because of doubts about its authorship, the Apocalypse of Peter only became extant again after being rediscovered in the tomb of a Christian monk in 1887. The second example is from the Apocalypse of Paul, dated about one hundred years later, and by a writer who clearly wanted to carry through the visions that Paul had alluded to in 2 Corinthians  but had never written down. What both these apocalypses demonstrate is the sheer paranoia about the fate that awaits women who behave in any way that might turn a man to lustful thoughts, but men, only when they have actually given in to the cunning of women. What follows is only a small sample of page upon page describing the work of a most vindictive and unforgiving God indeed:

‘And again behold two women: they hang them up by their neck and by their hair; they shall cast them into the pit. These are those who plaited their hair, not to make themselves beautiful but to turn them to fornication, that they might ensnare men to perdition. And the men who lay with them in fornication shall be hung by their loins in that place of fire. . . . And near this flame there is a pit, great and very deep, and into it flows from the above all manner of torment, foulness and excrement. And women are swallowed up therein up to their necks and tormented with great pain. These are the women who have caused their children to be born untimely and have corrupted the work of God who created them. . . . And beside those who are there, shall be other men and women, gnawing their tongues; and they shall torment them with red-hot irons and burn their eyes. . . . Other men and women whose works were done in deceitfulness shall have their lips cut off; and fire enters their entrails. . . . Beside them shall be girls clad in darkness for garment, and they shall be seriously punished and and their flesh shall be torn to pieces. These are those who did not preserve their virginity until they were given in marriage . . . And there are wheels of fire, and men and women hung thereon by the force of the whirling . . . now these are the sorcerers and the sorceresses.’

The second example, obviously influenced by the first, has Paul receiving revelations from an angel on what punishments God has singled out, not only for categories of sinners (including God's retribution for homosexuality) but for individual sinners also:

‘And I saw another man in the fiery river up to his knees. His hands were stretched out and bloody, and worms proceeded from his mouth and nostrils, and he was groaning and weeping, and crying he said, “Have pity on me! For I am hurt more than the rest who are in this punishment.” And I asked, “Sir, who is this?” And he said to me . “This man whom you see was a deacon who devoured the oblations and committed fornication . . . And I saw there girls in black raiment, and four terrifying angels having in their hands burning chains, and they put them on the necks of the girls and led them into darkness; and I, again weeping, asked the angel, “Who are these sir?” And he said to me. “These are they who, when they were virgins, defiled their virginity . . . And I saw other men and women covered with dust, and their countenance was like blood, and they were in a pit of pitch and sulphur running in a fiery river, and I asked, “Sir, who are these?” And he said to me, “These are they who committed the iniquity of Sodom and Gomorrah, the male with the male, for which reason they unceasingly pay the penalties.” ’

This demonisation of women would reach a level of sheer hysteria during the witch hunts that would commence one thousand years later. Women and girls would be hunted down throughout Europe during a three hundred year orgy of paranoia, and this time the persecutors and torturers would be Christians themselves. Having considered one of the motivators for these monks to engage in the extremes they did to maintain their chastity, let us now return to the asceticism of the Desert Fathers. Jerome also provides descriptions on just how little could a monk manage to survive. We hear of one who lived for thirty years on bread and muddy water, and another who survived in an old well on five dried figs a day. Redolent of the story of Diogenes smashing his clay cup on seeing a youth drinking from his cupped hands, we have the following account by Jerome, of Paul of Thebes on this occasion using the Cynic rhetoric of admonition: “What did this old man ever lack, naked as he was? You drink from jewelled cups but he was satisfied with the cupped hands that nature gave him. . . . paradise lies open to him, poor as he was, while hell will welcome you in your golden clothes.”

Temptation of St. Hilarion
From Jerome’s Life of Hilarion, we hear how another young man went off to live in the Palestinian desert at the age of fifteen after his parents had died and he had given away all the property he inherited. By the age of twenty he had built himself a small cell, ‘five feet high, in other words, less than his own height but slightly wider than his body demanded, so that you might have taken it to be his tomb rather than his home.’ And tomb it might well have been, not the luxury of Diogenes barrel this hovel, Hilarion spent the rest of his life in his cell fighting off the devil who would appear in all possible guises to dissuade this holy man from his mission of living according to God’s will. Naked women would appear before him to break his chastity, lavish banquets would be laid out before him to break his dietary abstinence, terrifying beasts would snarl and snap at him, and chariots and gladiators would bear down on him, all with the design of breaking his saintly resolve. We hear also that he cut his hair only once a year on Easter day (others would not have indulged even this luxury), but did not wash either himself or his sackcloth, only replacing it when it literally dropped from his body in shreds. Of his diet Jerome provides the following detailed account:

‘From the time he was twenty-one until he was twenty-seven, for three years he ate half a pint of lentils soaked in cold water and for the other three years he ate dry bread with salt and water. Then from the time he was twenty-seven until he was thirty, he lived on wild herbs and the uncooked roots of certain shrubs. From the time he was thirty-one until he was thirty-five his food consisted of six ounces of barley bread and lightly cooked vegetables without any oil. But when he sensed that his eyes were clouding over and that his whole body had contracted impetigo and some kind of rough skin disease, he added oil to the food I have mentioned, and until the sixty-third year of his life he continued at this level of abstinence, tasting neither fruit nor beans nor anything else. Then when he realised that he was physically worn out and thought that death was close at hand, from the time he was sixty four until his eightieth year he abstained from bread.’

But Hilarion, like many of these saints of the desert, was not short of distractions. Writers like Jerome have credited these holy men with inheriting Jesus’ ability to perform miracles. Jesus may have been dead, but to perpetuate God’s miraculous powers, Christian writers had these same holy men able to carry on the work that Jesus left off. The dead were returned to life, the sick were cured, and the barren given child. Hilarion’s first miracle was performed when he was twenty-two. At first Hilarion refused to look upon the woman from Eleutheropolis who came to his cell in the desert. Despised by her husband for being barren for fifteen years, she persisted, throwing herself at Hilarion’s feet and demanding to be heard: ‘“Forgive my boldness,” she said, “Forgive the necessity that impels me. Why do you avert your eyes? Why do you ignore my requests? . . . This sex gave birth to the Saviour.”’ And so, just as with Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, Hilarion is persuaded by the woman’s parrhesia and sees her with a son one year later.

That this perversion of Christianity had been preceded in ancient Greece and Rome with the celebration of women, reproduction and sexuality, even worshiping women as gods, and just in what way we moderns have lost touch with the natural world as a result of our obsession with the supernatural, is discussed fully in the main essay.

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