The Soul of Mary Magdalene Ascends into Heaven, Giotto, Magdalene Chapel

author: Elizabeth A. Castelli, pub. in Differences, A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies. Vol. 4. No.: 2, 1992. pp, 134-153


Note particularly the intention to study asceticism from a non-doctrinal, even a non-theological, perspective.

     [§ 1] Intellectual historians examining the remains of late twentiethcentury American culture will without question have to grapple with our curious relationship to the question of the body, a relationship that appears to have taken on the contours of an obsession in recent years.  [...]

    [§ 2] Attention to the question of the body in the study of religion emerges in concert with shifts away from narrowly conceived theological studies and toward a broader focus on the ways in which religious ideas and practices are articulated within a historical frame. The question of the body (in all of its varieties) in religion may now be posed non-theologically, or perhaps better, non-doctrinally. Such a possibility allows one to attend to the multiple and potentially competing and conflicting articulations of texts, rather than work toward the production of an ideological or dogmatic consensus.2 I write within the theoretical and political context where my discipline of training, religious studies, and cultural studies intersect. Fourth-century Egypt is as epistemically and culturally distant from twentieth-century America as it is temporally and geographically remote, and one is drawn to question what the possible relationship is between the two. Alternatively, one might ask how the theoretical character of late twentieth-century American intellectual life shapes what we might know about fourth-century Egyptian religious life. In asserting a meaningful connection, I have been informed by discussions in literary and cultural studies and in anthropology, where attention to the questions of the social location of the critic/observer and the mediating quality of his/her intervention into a text or social situation has radically altered thinking about the academic study of culture (Clifford;Clifford and Marcus; Marcus and Fischer). As students of culture, we who study religion in its historical and cultural frames tend to pursue questions that interest us (pique our curiosity) and that are shaped by our interests (disciplinary, institutional, political). My own interests lie in trying to trace out the lines of connection and ruptured relationships between the worlds of late antiquity and our own, in part because I remain convinced that many of the theoretical debates in which we find ourselves engaged in the contemporary setting have roots in the past. [...]



The author raises the presupposition of dualism in order to challenge it on the basis of her study of Syncletica's life.

     [§ 1] The dualism of early Christianity is a truism constantly rearticulated wherever surveys of Western Civilization sweep hurriedly across the ancient Near East, the golden ages of Mediterranean cultures, and the history of Europe, stopping only momentarily to reduce the distinctive cultures of early Christianity to either a contrast from what had gone before, an amalgam of earlier discrete ideologies and practices, or the ground within which later (better or worse) manifestations of religiosity are rooted. On closer examination, however, this dualism which operates as an uninterrogated given in the conceptual framework of many studies of early Christianity comes to appear less thoroughgoing, more mediated or open to competing interpretation, and ultimately less helpful a heuristic concept in trying to understand what was at stake for early Christians in their sometimes extreme pieties of the body.

     [§ 2] The paradox of early Christianity, of course, is that its apparent rejection of the body as a shadowy and passible shell of the immortal soul is located within an ideological and practical matrix thoroughly focused on the body. Every important dimension of early Christian thought and practice is mediated through language and ideas about and the material realities of the (human or mystical) body. While it is not particularly difficult to isolate graphic quotations from the church fathers to sustain the claim that the early Christians were relentlessly anti-body, enacting the most extreme forms of Platonic dualism by embracing the spirit and casting aside the flesh, there exists the equally compelling reality that the early Christians were absolutely obsessed with the fact of human-being-in-flesh. The foundational myth of Christianity, the death and resurrection of Jesus, requires a human body. The earliest rituals, baptism and eucharist, focus on the importance of the individual worshipper’s participation in the community through the proper disposition of the body. The church is routinely evoked through the metaphor of “the body of Christ,” and early Christian theology was preoccupied with the unique occasion of Jesus’s incarnation. Martyrdom and asceticism, the two dominant and most highly revered forms of piety in the first centuries of Christianity, demanded the complete engagement of the human body. It is within this complex matrix of mythic, ritual, and practical fixation on the question of the body that early Christian texts and behaviors must be read; accounting for early Christian understandings of the body under the rubric of “dualism” is too facile a rendering of the situation. This essay seeks to demonstrate an alternative reading of a particular text from early Christianity, one which deals with ascetic behavior, practices themselves routinely described as “dualistic”. [...]



The author points to the many difficulties associated with even agreeing to a definition of asceticism in modern secular scholarship.

     [§ 1] Recent attempts to theorize and define “asceticism” or “ascetic behavior” have demonstrated the difficulty of accounting fully for a range of practices across widely divergent geographical and temporal settings and for the discourses that construct them.7 While the temptation exists to resort to common sense, I-know-it-when-I-see-it, definitions, I would like to venture an attempt at defining asceticism from the text itself, recognizing that the definition may only be partially generalizable.

     [§ 2] Asceticism in this text is clearly a bodily piety, but it is explicitly described as a set of practices whose effect is only incidentally physical; more important for Syncletica is that asceticism has mental and spiritual resonances. Askęsis is discipline or practice, and part of its character inheres in its repetition and careful modulation. It is renunciation, but it is also self-formation: creating a body completely emptied of content and meaning while constructing a “self” worthy of transformation. So, asceticism can include sexual renunciation, fasting, mortifications (sleeping on the floor, sleep deprivation, and some of the more elaborate inflictions of pain or duress upon the body); but also study, repetitive activity, simple life. From Syncletica’s perspective, some of the range of ascetic practices emerges in her discussion of ascetic arrogance, where it becomes clear that ascetic behavior does not always mean the same thing:

Whenever you find these things fitting, it is necessary to perform a cure for those [souls] captured by arrogance. For it is necessary to say to her: “Why are you filled with conceit? Because you don’t eat meat? Others don’t even look at fish. And if you don’t drink wine, look: others don’t even eat oil. Do you fast until late? Others continue without food for two or three days. Do you think that you are great because you do not bathe? Many, even with bodily suffering, have no use at all for this [a bath]. But you admire yourself, because you sleep on a pallet and in a bed of hair? Others always sleep on the ground. But even if you have done this, it is nothing great; for some cast rocks under themselves, in order not to have any physical pleasure; and others even suspend themselves for the entire night. But even if you did all these things, and even if you performed the most extreme ascetic practice, you ought not to think it great. For demons have done and do more than you do;for they neither eat, nor drink, nor marry, nor sleep; but they live in the desert, even inhabiting a cave, if you think doing that is a great thing. (53)

     [§ 3] Just as ascetic practices vary greatly, so do their goals. Syncletica’s piety and her teachings about ascetic behavior are not organized around some simple notion of the repression of the body; rather, they have to do with careful observance of the body and the soul, and the tensive balance between the two. Metaphors are used that suggest an emptying out of the body of meaning, content, or life, rendering it ultimately a shell or receptacle or vessel. Both the body and the soul are figured in the text by the metaphor of the clean and closed-up house, the senses functioning as windows through which smoke might enter and foul thoughts as the carriers of infection and pollution into the soul:  [...]

For through our senses, even if we do not wish them to, the thieves enter. For how can a house whose windows are open not be blackened by smoke that comes in from the outside? . . . Therefore we must clean our house continuously and look around, lest any of the soul-destroying insects might penetrate into the treasuries of the soul. . . . (25; 80)

     [§ 4] Asceticism is further described as a rehearsal for death, the occasion when the body is emptied of life.8 Comparing the ascetic body to a well bucket, Syncletica speaks of ascetic practice as the process of emptying the body, rendering it thereby the more effective bearer of “every solicitude” toward the soul (93). These figures of the body as both closed on the one hand, and empty and awaiting filling up on the other would seem to be mutually exclusive, yet they are found together as early as Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, where the concern for protecting bodily boundaries is found interwoven with images such as the body as the temple of holy spirit (1 Cor. 6.19).
     [§ 5] The concern for the protection of the internal regions of the self, while often articulated in the text in terms of dualistic opposition and usually to describe Syncletica’s asceticism as more arduous because internally focused, also emphasizes the interwovenness of the external and the internal. Bodily asceticisms accompany spiritual exercise, and physical trials are interpreted as spiritual tests. Furthermore, many of Syncletica’s disciplines are described as emotional or psychic rather than physical, and while the internal/spiritual dimension is clearly privileged in this idiom, it is not separable from the physical.

6. [Conclusion]

Note that without attempting to describe the spiritual or eschatological goal of Syncletica's asceticism, the author nevertheless affords a glimpse of a non-dualistic piety in which body and soul are both transformed.

     [§ 1] Following these four discursive threads in the Life of Syncletica’s articulation of the lived physical experience of asceticism, I discern recurrent tensions between an ideological dualism and a discourse which exceeds and problematizes simple assertions of dualism. In dramatic and graphic descriptions of the fragility and passibility of the body, the soul is elevated to a privileged status which becomes self-evident over time. And yet, the body is not simply discarded in the text, but rather placed under constant surveillance; molded through discipline to become the worthy vessel of the soul in constant process of refinement; figured at once as diseased space and as holy object possessed of powers of transformation and healing; constantly rendered in tension over its competing functions as subject and object of vision which, though rarely characterized in simple, positive terms, is always perceived as powerful; caught up in a carefully valenced economy of shifting meanings, signified variously through corporeal images of gender, illness, and sentience. Just as bodily disciplines shape the soul’s path, so the soul’s practice manifests its success or failure in physical terms. Conventional meanings associated with the body, particularly those of health and gender, are complicated in the text, displacing some expectations even while reinscribing them (or others).

     [§ 2] Even in this ideological economy, which is clearly hierarchical and oppositional in its organization, the language of dualism does not suffice. Dualism shares the stage with interconnection, and each cautiously qualifies the other. Syncletica’s asceticism is predicated on a bodily existence which is carefully modulated, taking special care to maintain a kind of balance or equilibrium. At the same time, the tensive balance of Syncletica’s religious practice mirrors the language of Syncletica’s text, especially where the discourses of the body are central. The strain to sustain ascetic equilibrium is in turn reflected in the text’s attempt to maintain its ideological equilibrium.

     [§ 3] Whether the Life’s author wrote out of a complex and dialectical sensibility about the relationship of spirit to flesh or whether (as some of the text’s blemishes suggest) the pattern found here is rather more accidental, it is clear that the Life of Syncletica muddies the distinctions between body and soul at almost every turn, asserting both the near-physicality of the soul as well as the carnality of spiritual struggle. As problematic as the body is for the author, it cannot be simply rejected as the negative pole of a dualistic equation. Rather, the body remains fundamental to ascetic pieties, a compelling site for the production of religious meanings, as well as the source for endless images to document the soul’s curative journey.



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