The Body and Society,
Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity


  Body and Soul, BNF FR 135, f. 5   Bart. Angl.On the Properties of Things 15th C.

Part Two: Asceticism and Society in the Eastern Empire,
Chapter 11: The Desert Fathers: Anthony to John Climacus
pp. 218-225

[p.218] [...] By moving to the desert, the ascetic mobilized his physical person as a whole; and in the image of the person current in ascetic circles, food and the unending battle with the ache of fasting always counted for more than did the sexual drive.

    Whatever his social status, no Egyptian of the fourth century could have had any doubt that his was a land whose population lived under a pall of perpetual fear of starvation.[1] It was not for nothing that “poverty” and “famine,” “the poor” and “the starving” shared the same root in Coptic.[2] While the Nile valley was a zone of food, braced against the threat of famine, the desert was thought of as the zone deprived of human food: it was a zone of the nonhuman. For this reason, the most bitter struggle of the desert ascetic was presented not so much as a struggle with his sexuality as with his belly. It was his triumph in the struggle with hunger that released, in the popular imagination, the most majestic and the most haunting images of a new humanity. Nothing less than the hope of Paradise regained flickered, spasmodically but recognizably, around the figures who had dared to create a human “city” in a landscape void of human food.[3]

    The ascetic brought with him into the desert fragile tokens of an enduring humanity that he had to defend tenaciously if he was to survive at all and maintain his sanity. He could not sink like an animal into its alluring immensity. His cell was most often a product of anxious human care: its walls stood between him and the wild beasts that roamed the desert in far greater numbers than they do today.[4] He [p.219] was committed to that cell. He had to learn to savor its “sweetness”; it was both his fiery furnace and the place where he spoke to God.[5] It was the deep grave in which he lay, “dead” to the world, in the desert.[6] In his long vigils, only his unbroken human will stood between his body and the vast insensitivity of sleep.[7]

Throughout his life in the desert, the monk’s body remained irrevocably tied to human food. This tie was condensed in the little pile of dried loaves, stacked in a corner of his cell. Bread meant a continued tie to human social life. It was usually acquired by constant manual labor. Its purchase necessitated occasional journeys back to the edge of the Nile, to sell his wares at the village market and to earn yet more money by stints of back-breaking labor as a migrant harvester in the fields of the valley.[8] The need for human food, earned by hard work, tied the monk indissolubly to the shared weaknesses of a starving humanity. He could expect to be besieged by thoughts

of lengthy old age, inability to perform manual labor, fear of the starvation that will ensue, of the sickness that follows undernourishment, and the deep shame of having to accept the necessities of life from the hands of others.[9]

   The titillating whispers of the “demon of fornication,” much though they appear to fascinate modern readers, seemed trivial compared with such dire obsessions.

   The most terrible temptation of all that pressed in continuously upon [p.220] men perched, in this way, on the edge of the desert, was to betray their humanity. It was to break out of the confines of their cell and to expunge the regular alternations of vigil and prayer, eating and fasting. In moments when he was close to breakdown, the ascetic felt driven to wander as free and as mindless as a wild beast, gnawing at the scattered herbs, mercifully oblivious, at last, to the terrible ache of a belly tied to morsels of human bread, cruelly spaced out by the human rhythms of prayer and fasting. This was the dire state of adiaphoria. In it, the boundaries of man and desert, human and beast collapsed in chilling confusion. Adiaphoria, and not sexual temptations, flamboyant and deeply humiliating though these might sometimes be, was the condition that the Desert Fathers observed most anxiously, and described most graphically, because they feared it most deeply in themselves.[10]

   Once they had faced out the terrible risks involved in remaining human in a nonhuman environment, the men of the desert were thought capable of recovering, in the hushed silence of that dead landscape, a touch of the unimaginable glory of Adam’s first state. Hence the importance of fasting in the world of the Desert Fathers. It was widely believed, in Egypt as elsewhere, that the first sin of Adam and Eve had been not a sexual act, but rather one of ravenous greed. It was their lust for physical food that had led them to disobey God’s command not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. By so doing, they had destroyed the perfect physical equilibrium with which they had been first created. No longer content to contemplate the majesty of God largely (if not wholly) unconscious of the needs of their body, Adam and Eve had reached out to devour the forbidden fruit. In this view of the Fall, greed and, in a famine-ridden world, greed’s blatant social overtones—avarice and dominance—quite overshadowed sexuality.

   To fast for Lent was to undo a little of the fateful sin of Adam.[11] To fast heroically, by living in the desert, the land without food, was to [p.221] relive Adam’s first and most fatal temptation, and to overcome it, as Adam had not done. [12] Little wonder, then, that food frequently pushed sexuality to one side, as the major preoccupation of the monk. On the walls of a cell in Kellia, one monk had scrawled, as warning to himself, the fatal cry by which Esau had fallen from his birthright: “Jacob, my brother, [o, give me] lentils![13]

   Perched on the edge of the desert along the valley of the Nile, within sight of the settled land, the monks of fourth-century Egypt stood as a perpetual challenge to the situation of hunger and of bitter dependence on the marketplace that characterized the society of a starving and laborious Near East. They, at least, had broken the dark cycle of hunger and avarice. In the legends that clustered around their persons at the end of the fourth century, we can glimpse the dreams of men who knew what it was to starve. The Christians of Egypt firmly believed that a few great monks had been able to make their way back to the imaginative antipodes of the sterile sands of the desert. When a party of pilgrims compiled the Historia Monachorum, the Survey of the Monks of Egypt, around 400, the heroes they visited were men believed to have touched, and to have released for others, the huge, frankly physical exuberance of Adam’s Paradise. Angels once arrived at the cell of Apa Apollonius and his companions, to bring them giant apples, great clusters of grapes, exotic fruits, and loaves of warm white bread. It was a foretaste of the sensual delights of Paradise, granted to men who, by fasting, had chosen of their own free will to starve. This Paradise was a land without the burning heat of day or the icy cold of the desert nights. Its gentle slopes were covered with rustling fruit trees, through which wafted nourishing, perfumed breezes. It lay just beyond the horizon of the cruel desert:[14]

   Visitors to Apa Copres noticed that, while he walked with them on the edge of the desert, farmers would come up from the valley below to scoop the sand from his footsteps. They would scatter it on their fields in order to produce a harvest richer than that of any other village in the middle Nile. The anecdote, taken from a notoriously poor [p.222] region, enables us to sense the urgency that had come to gather around the figures of those who bore in their bodies the primal themes of desert, settled land, and food.[15]

   In the Sayings of the Fathers, the memories of the great monks of Nitria and Scetis collected in the mid-fifth century, in the Lausiac History of Palladius, and in the lives and rulings of Pachomius and his successors, we can sense the huge weight that the myth of Paradise regained placed on the frail bodies of the ascetics. It is precisely the bleak and insistent physicality of ascetic anecdotes that shocks the modern reader. They have led scholars to speak of “Contempt for the human condition and hatred of the body” as the principal motive that led the monks to undergo so much physical privation.[16] Far from confirming this view, the mood prevalent among the Desert Fathers implicitly contradicts it. The ascetics imposed severe restraints on their bodies because they were convinced that they could sweep the body into a desperate venture. For the average ascetics—ordinary, pious Christian men and women, squatting in cells within sight of the green fields of their villages,[17] or huddled together in the mudbuilt shelters of the Pachomian monasteries[18]—the imagined transfiguration of the few great ascetics, on earth, spoke to them of the eventual transformation of their own bodies on the day of the Resurrection.

   They said of Apa Pambo, that just as Moses had taken on the likeness of the glory of Adam, when his face shone with the glory of the Lord, in the same way, the face of Apa Pambo shone like lightning, and he was like an Emperor, seated on a throne. The same effect was to be seen in Apa Silvanos and in Apa Sisoes.[19]

The ascetics thought of themselves as men and women who had gained a precious freedom to mourn for their sins and to suffer in this life so that they might regain a future glory for their bodies:

Let the soul then, brothers, teach wisdom to this thick body every day when we come to our bed at evening, and say to each member of the body, “O [p.223]feet, while you have the power to stand and to move before you are laid out and become motionless, stand eagerly for your Lord.” To the hands, let it say, “The hour comes when you will be loosened and motionless, bound to each other [crosswise over the breast] . . . then before you fall into that hour do not cease stretching yourself out to the Lord.” “O body . . . bear me as I eagerly confess God, before you are borne away by others. . . . For there will be a time when that most heavy sleep will surely overcome you. But if you listen to me, we shall together enjoy the blessed inheritance.”[20]

   There is no doubt as to the terrible privations that were involved even in the relatively stable life of the Pachomian monasteries. But we must remember that the body-image which the ascetics brought with them into the desert gave considerable cognitive and emotional support to their hope for change through self-mortification. It takes some effort of the modern imagination to recapture this aspect of the ascetic life. The ascetics of late antiquity tended to view the human body as an “autarkic” system. In ideal conditions, it was thought capable of running on its own “heat”; it would need only enough nourishment to keep that heat alive. In its “natural” state—a state with which the ascetics tended to identify the bodies of Adam and Eve—the body had acted like a finely tuned engine, capable of “idling” indefinitely. It was only the twisted will of fallen men that had crammed the body with unnecessary food, thereby generating in it the dire surplus of energy that showed itself in physical appetite, in anger, and in the sexual urge. In reducing the intake to which he had become accustomed, the ascetic slowly remade his body. He turned it into an exactly calibrated instrument. Its drastic physical changes, after years of ascetic discipline, registered with satisfying precision the essential, preliminary stages of the long return of the human person, body and soul together, to an original, natural and uncorrupted state.[21]


The Spirit calls them . . . [Anthony wrote to his disciples] . . . And He delivers to them works whereby they may constrain their soul and their body, that both may be purified and enter into their inheritance. . . . And it [p.224] separates us from all the fruits of the flesh which have been mingled with all the members of the body since the first transgression”[22]

   Contemporaries liked to think that they had sensed this state in Anthony, when he first emerged from his cell at the bottom of a ruined fort, after twenty years, in 305:

When they beheld him, they were amazed to see that his body had maintained its former condition, neither fat for lack of exercise, nor emaciated from fasting and combat with demons, but just as it was when they had known him previous to his withdrawal. The state of his soul was one of purity.. . . He maintained an utter equilibrium, as one guided by harmonious reason and steadfast in that which accords with man’s true nature.[23]

This was a body that had already

received a portion of that spiritual body which it is to assume in the resurrection of the just.[24]



   A deep serenity, therefore, was thought to come to rest on the bodies of the few great monks. This serenity, however, was only the physical byproduct of a spiritual state. It made magnificently palpable, for all to see, the ascetic’s victory in a struggle that was less visible, more prolonged, and far more bitter than had been the effort to chasten the flesh. Only those who had won the long battle with their own “heart” could hope to be touched, as Pambo and Anthony had been, by the glory of Adam.

   The ascetic had to learn, over the long years of life in the desert, to do nothing less than to untwist the very sinews of his private will. Fasting and heavy labor were important, in their own right, in the first years of the ascetic life, and especially for young monks in their full physical vigor. They were part of a “Cold Turkey Treatment,” by which the ascetic leeched out of his body his former excessive dependence on food and sexual satisfaction. The young man’s sexual drives were dramatically reduced, and his body was slowed down by the long fasts and sleepless nights of the desert. Loss of energy alone forced him to adopt the grave, ritualized movements that characterized the good monk. Fasting and vigils “clarified” the body: [p.225]

Increase for it, if you please, either the fast of the sabbaths, or the vigil of the nights, or the reading without interruption, and the body will not be taken ill, because it has got accustomed to them. The stomach has been reduced . . . the paths of the blood have become narrower and have only moderate claims. The kidneys have acquired their natural health and do not demand much warmth. The slime is driven out of all the bones, and on account of the smallness of the body they are not weakened or damaged by much vigil.[25]


[1] Aline Rousselle, Porneia: De la maîtrise du corps à la privation sensorielle, pp. 205—206; see, in general, Evelyne Patlagean, Pauvreté économique et pauvreté sociale à Byzance, PP. 78—84

[2] W. E. Crum, A Coptic Dictionary, pp. 663–664.

[3] Peter Brown, “Response to R. M. Grant,” The Problem of Miraculous Feedings in the Graeco-Roman World, pp. 19–24. In what follows, I am particularly indebted to the suggestions of R. Flusin, Miracle et Histoire dans l’oeuvre de Cyrille de Scythopolis, pp. 125–126. A. Arbesmann, “Fasting and Prophecy in Pagan and Christian Antiquity,” and H. Musurillo, “The Problem of Ascetical Fasting in the Greek Patristic Writers,” assemble much evidence. The reader is strongly advised to consult Caroline Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. This is an account of the meaning of fasting and of self-mortification that is conducted on a level of empathy and sophistication unusual in Early Church or medieval history; see esp. pp. 31–40 for the late antique period.

[4] Sentences des Pères du Désert: Nouveau Recueil, 17, L. Regnault, trans., pp. 17–18; S. Sauneron and J. Jacquet, “Les ermitages chrétiens du désert d’Esna,” pp. 25–26.

[5] The sweetness of the cell: Apophthegmata Patrum, Theodore of Pherme 14: 189D—192A; furnace: Anonymous Apophth. M. S. Coislin 126, 206, in F. Nau, ed., Revue de lOrient chrétien (1908) 13:279.

[6] The cells at Bawit were built like tomb houses: H. Torp, “Le monastère copte de Baouit,” p. 8.

[7] Apophthegmata Patrum, Poimen 185: 368AB; Bohairic Life of Pachomius 10, First Greek Life 6, A. Veilleux, trans., Pachomian Koinonia I: The Life of Saint Pachomius and his Disciples, pp. 33, 301–302; Palladius, Lausiac History 18.3

[8] Apophthegmata Patrum, Lucius: 253C—earned 16 coins a day, of which he used 14 for food and the remainder for alms; Megethios 1: 300D—three baskets a day makes a monk independent; Amun 3: 128D—disciple sent to the village for food; Agatho 16: 113D—monk sells his pots at market; Esaias 5: 181B, Macarius the Egyptian 7: 265AB, John Colobos 6: 205B and Anon. Copt. Apophth. 166, in M. Chaine, ed., Institut français d’archéologie orientale: Bibliothèque des études coptes (1960) 6:115—harvest labor.

[9] Evagrius, Praktikos 9, ed. A. and C. Guillaumont, Evagre le Pontique: Traité Pratique ou le Moine, p. 512; J. E. Bamberger, trans., Evagrius Ponticus: The Praktikos and Chapters on Prayer, p. 17. Such cases happened: see the appeal to Epiphanius of Thebes on behalf of a monk—”for he is unable to reap, neither hath he any other craft, nor can he go South by reason of the sickness that is on him:” W. E. Crum and H. G. Evelyn-White, The Monastery of Epiphanius of Thebes, Part 2: Coptic Ostraca and Papyri, p. 198.

[10] Palladius, Laus. Hist. 26 and 27; Evagrius, Antirrhetikos 1. 37, W. Frankenberg, ed. Abhandlungen der königlichen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, Philol.-Hist. Klasse, pp. 478–479. Long periods of wandering were permitted, as long as the monk recognized his continued link to his cell: Apophthegmata Patrum, Bessarion 4: 14ID.

[11] For example, Basil of Caesarea, de ieiunio, horn. r. 4: Patrologia Graeca 31: 168B and horn. 7 in temp. famis 31: 324C, and Romanos Melodes, Hymn 1. 3–22, in G. Grosdidier de Matons, ed., Romanos le Mélode: Hymnes, pp. 72–92.

[12] Flusin, Miracle et histoire, p. 104.

[13] Kasser, Kellia, p. 22.

[14] Historia Monachorum 7: Patrologia Latina 21: 416BC; Apophthegmata Patrum, Macarius 2: 260C–261A; Bohairic Life of Pachomius 114, Veilleux, Pachomian Koinonia 1, pp. 167–168. For the Syriac world, see Ephraem of Nisibis, On Paradise 9.13 and 10.2–13, in R. Lavenant, trans., Ephrem de Nisibe: Hymnes sur le Paradis, pp.126, 135–140.

[15] Hist. Mon. 11: 431D, cf. 9: 426A.

[16] E. R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, p. 35.

[17] E.g., Apophthegmata Patrum, Poimen 12: 349C; Anon. Copt. Apophth. 42, Chaine, ed., p. 92—Ama Sara never once saw the Nile flowing beneath her cell.

[18] Rousseau, Pachomius, pp. 77-86.

[19] Apophthegmata Patrum, Pambo 12: 372A; for Adam enthroned like an Emperor among the beasts of Paradise, see M. Y. and P. Canivet, “La mosaïque dans l’église syriaque de Huârte.”

[20] Paralipomena 9.20 in A. Veilleux, trans., Pachomian Koinonia 2, pp. 4344•

[21] Such autarky is assumed in Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man 30. II-23: Patrologia Graeca 44: 245D-252D. Valentinus, cited with approval by Clement of Alexandria, took it for granted that Christ did not defecate, his body being in a state of perfect equilibrium: Clement, Stromata 3.759• Excrement was always linked with luxury: it was the clear measure of overeating—e.g., John Chrysostom, Horn. 13 in 1 Tim. 5 4: P.G. 62: 570. See Brown, Miracles of Feeding, p. 19 for further evidence.

[22] Anthony, Letter 1,in D. J. Chitty, trans., The Letters of Anthony the Great, p. 2.

[23] Life of Anthony 14: 865A; Gregg, p. 42

[24] Anthony, Letter 1, p. 5.

[25] Philoxenus of Mabbug, Letter sent to a Friend 18, in G. Olinder, trans., Acta Universitatis Gotoburgensis, p. 13*. This phenomenon has been observed in modern experiments: see A. Keys, J. Brozek and others, The Biology of Human Starvation, 2:839—853, 905—918. On monastic diet, see now M. Dembinska, “Diet. A Comparison of Food Consumption in some Eastern and Western Monasteries in the 4th—12th centuries.”




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