Asceticism in late antiquity arose out of the will to sacrifice the material pleasures of one’s life, adopting a simplistic lifestyle dedicated to a vigorous commitment to God. Constantine’s Edict of Milan (313AD) made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. With this, Susanna Elm has noted that asceticism became ‘a method for men and women to transcend, as virgins of God, the limitations of humanity in relation to the divine’. The idea of female virginity as a pure and sacred feature was embedded in Christian theology. Women sought to emulate the virtue of the Virgin Mary by surpassing human flaws and living life on earth as the angels inhabited the heavens.
We must consider the driving forces that led to a rise in this religious phenomenon and must understand that there were many contributing factors of which only few were deep-seated in religion. This article will discuss this religious phenomenon using the lives of Marcella, Macrina, and Melania the Younger as prime examples, all of whom portrayed the quintessential values of a female ascetic. This article will further discuss constituent factors which included attempts to break free from an overtly patriarchal society, questions of wealth and status, and the impact of a cultural and religious progression. This article will also lend a brief discussion on how hagiography as a genre poses two main problems: firstly, that it was written by men about women, and secondly, that this form lends itself to an exaggerated portrayal of these saintly figures. Separating the male objective from the choices of these women is crucial in understanding their incentives.
The term ‘the Bride of Christ’ was popular and came to be earnestly respected, representing only the purest Christian women. Here, religious motivation was sparked through detailed interpretations of the Bible, with particular focus on the purpose of women within a larger scheme orchestrated by God.
Many ancient writers used the Bible in order to justify their attitudes towards virginity and to persuade others that adopting an ascetic life was beneficial. This is evident in Jerome’s letter to Eustochium (Letter 22) where he uses Psalm 45 and sections of the Old Testament to impress upon her that she must be loyal to Christ. The advice of these writers to women must be taken with a pinch of salt. Were they true interpreters of the holy texts or were they merely searching for a vehicle through which they could promote their own agendas and beliefs?
One of the most explicit testimonies that may have prompted women to undergo such a modest life can be found in Timothy 2:11-15, where it is stated that a woman should ‘learn in silence with all submissiveness’ and ‘be saved through child-bearing, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty’. This begs the question of why sexual renunciation was embraced with such passion if Eve’s sins could be redeemed through childbearing.
Here lies the focus on the ‘submissiveness’ and ‘modesty’ of women and their subjugation to their male counterparts; Genesis 3:16 states ‘in pains and anxieties you bring forth children, woman, and your inclination is for your husband, and he rules over you’. The image of a servile wife meant that those who had claimed God to be their eternal partner had done so knowing that their life on earth would be ruled by the strict boundaries of the Bible. Many such interpretations meant that women were, for the most part, regarded as inferior. John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople, fervently claimed that women ‘turned men into cowardly lions’. Yet in his praise of his female friend Olympias—who was a deaconess and thus represented the purity and goodliness of a ‘bride of Christ’—we get a glimpse of the virtues that a woman needed to exhibit in order to transcend this negative image and be regarded in terms of her ‘immaterial body, mind without vainglory and immeasurable self-control’. Perhaps it was the need to prove themselves worthy of the love and affection of God that drove women to such an extreme way of life. The dual evaluation of the female gender as both the ‘Devil’s Gateway’ and the ‘Bride of Christ’ by the church fathers provides an excellent starting point for the analysis of sexual renunciation during this time. Other ancient texts that can be cited as proof for the need to avoid sexual activity include Lactantius’ Divine Institutes where he argues against pagan practises, stating that their gods could not be divine for they reproduced and succumbed to the ills of desire.
Religious belief was tied to every aspect of women’s daily lives, and even clothing was a representation of their vows of virginity. Melania the Younger is famed for her refusal to remove her veil upon meeting Empress Eudocia, the wife of Theodosius II. Consequently, she was depicted as a ‘bride of Christ’ and her veil was included in her ‘garments of salvation’. Her husband Pinanius became her ‘spiritual brother’ and she was thus idealised for her dedication to her true love, God. Clothing as religious symbolism was another factor that characterised ancient asceticism. Tertullian harangues his audience in his treatise On the Dress of Women as he presses upon women the importance of maintaining a simple and modest dress.
As we see in the case of Macrina—whose family was archetypal of the ascetic lifestyle, with her brothers Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa being two of the Cappadocian fathers—asceticism, and in particular female asceticism, grew out of the Christian household. It was believed that ‘the salvation of the whole house lay in a virgin’. This argument can be taken as an explanation for the establishment of monasteries that housed virgins, such as those of Melania the Younger and Paula.
The world of religious devotion was male-dominated, and the conclusion drawn from the prohibition of women as ‘teachers’ (Timothy 2:11) was that they were to be denied entry into priesthood. From this, it can be argued that women removed themselves from the world of sexual and material desires in order to rise in the ranks of religious hierarchy and achieve an otherwise unattainable saintly status. Both Christian men and women alike were asked to reflect that human society was deeply flawed and that it was far better to save, through prayer and renunciation, one’s soul and those of others already in existence than to involve oneself in reproduction.
Written by: Kavisha Kamalananthan
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