Please note that is a “dynamic syllabus”:  it may be slightly adapted and updated as the course progresses.


This course provides an introduction to early Christian ascetical theology, the theological study of the quest for virtue and the struggle against sin and vice.  Readings will be taken chiefly from primary sources in the early Christian ascetical tradition prior to the twelfth century, a period during which Christian morality and spirituality were considered to be inseparable.  Our study of the pre-scholastic theology of virtue and vice will thus afford a vision of the bases of both Christian moral theology and contemplative spirituality.  Ancient and modern texts will be studied as guides and sourcebooks for models of conversion, growth in human maturity, and spiritual progress.  Particular emphasis will be place on the ascetical writings of Saints Evagrius Ponticus and John Cassian. The course will consist of four parts: 

(1) Classical and Christian understandings of ascesis, the moral/spiritual struggle to overcome vice and inculcate virtue (weeks 1-2);

(2) Repentance and the call to conversion as the basis of freedom and authentic Christian ascetical practice (weeks 3-4);

(3) The dynamic interrelationship between ascetical practice and contemplative vision, including an introduction to lectio divina, a laboratory of the interaction between ascesis and contemplation (weeks 5-7);

(4) Philosophical and early Christian models of virtue and vice (weeks 8-15).


1)  Students will develop familiarity with traditional models of ascetical practice, virtue, and vice described by Evagrius Ponticus and John Cassian.

2)  Students will learn to use primary sources on Christian asceticism and classical theories of the virtues.

3)  Students will understand both the original and the modern, adapted meanings of “asceticism”, “contemplation”, and “action” in the vocabulary of Christian spirituality.

4)  Students will develop familiarity with traditional corporal and intellectual ascetical practices, including lectio divina, liturgical prayer, and monologistic prayer.


1)  This course will combine lectures, directed readings, and “Discussion Board Threaded Discussions” based on assigned readings. Active participation in threaded discussions is essential, and will figure into the final evaluation.

2)  Students must choose one of the two options for final course assessment: (1) a written research project 10-15 pages in length, footnoted, with appropriate bibliography; (2) a power-point or webpage-based presentation of approximately 15-20 minutes duration intended for use in teaching, including a recorded narration and clear references to all consulted works.  The instructor will contact each student towards the end of the third and fifth weeks of the course to monitor progress on the research. 

3)   The final course grade will be computed as follows:

Class participation


Research paper


 REQUIRED TEXTS (purchase of these texts is OPTIONAL for students: all required reading will be available as Website Course Documents, many of which may be downloaded in MS-Word format from Course Documents):

1) RB 80 The Rule of St. Benedict in Latin and English with Notes, (Liturgical Press).

2) Peter Brown, The Body and Society, (Columbia University Press, 1988) ISBN: 0231061013.


  1) Jordan Aumann, Spiritual Theology, (Sheed and Ward, 1980).

  2) Gabriel Bunge, Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition tr. Michael Miller, (Ignatius Press, March 2002) ISBN: 0898708370

  3) Liz Carmichael, Interpreting Christian Love (T&T Clark/Continuum, 2004) ISBN 0567080722.

  4) Charles Cummings, Monastic Practices, (Cistercian Pub., 1986) ISBN: 0879078758.

  5) Olivier Clément, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, Text and Commentary  (New City Press, NY, 1996), ISBN 1565480295

  6) F. L, Cross & E. A. Livingstone, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, (Oxford University Press).

  7) Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline, the Path to Spiritual Growth, (Harper, 1978) ISBN 0060628391.

  8) Mary Margaret Funk, Thoughts Matter, The Practice of the Spiritual Life, (Continuum 1998)  ISBN: 0826411649.

  9) Mary Margaret Funk, Tools Matter for Practicing the Spiritual Life,  (Continuum 2004). ISBN: 0826416551.

10) Brian Patrick McGuire, Friendship and Community, the Monastic Experience 350-1250 (Cistercian Pub., 1988).

11) Columba Stewart, Prayer and Community, (Orbis Books, 1998) ISBN: 1570752192

12) Benedicta Ward, Harlots of the Desert, A Study of Repentance in Early Monastic Sources, (Cistercian Pub., 1987).

13) Adolphe Tanquerey, The Spiritual Life, A Treatise on Ascetical and Mystical Theology, (Desclee, New York, 1930). Although out-of-print for many years, the first 427 pp. of this text may be downloaded form the Course Documents section of this course.

14) Vincent Wimbush, ed. Ascetic Behavior in Greco-Roman Antiquity, (Fortress Press. 1990),

15) Vincent Wimbush & Richard Valantasis, ed. Asceticism, (Oxford University Press, 1995).

16) Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, (Harper 1988).

 COURSE OUTLINE AND READINGS (see Lectures and Assignments for a detailed description of weekly readings and downloadable lectures)


The development of the ancient Greek understanding of ascesis will be studied in order to appreciate the original significance of this term and its use in the early Church.  Mt. 6:1-21 will be briefly discussed as a model and exhortation to Christian ascetical practice. Traditional and modern efforts to define and delineate the theological “domain” of asceticism will be briefly considered.  Athanasius' depiction of asceticism in the Life of Antony will be studied.


Website Course Documents:

1) Timeline of Important Figures in Christian Ascetical Theology

2) Introduction: The Literal and Adapted Meanings of Ascesis (Liddell-Scott and Kittel)

3) Philo and Jesus on asceticism

4) Tanquerey and Castelli on asceticism

5) Athanasius on asceticism


1) RB 80, “Historical Orientation”, pp. 3-64, 113-141.

2) Brown, Chapter, 2, “From Apostle to Apologist” pp. 33-64.



The interrelationship between repentance and asceticism will be studied.  Christian asceticism will be seen as a commitment to lifelong conversion and spiritual progress based on the experience of grace.  The ancient Benedictine controversy over conversatio/conversio and the difficult “art of accurate repentance” will be studied in light of monastic primary sources.


Website Course Documents:

1) The Rule of Benedict and The Rule of the Master: The Prologues;

2) selections from the Life of Pachomius

3) selections from the Life of Pelagia the Harlot

4) St. Aelred on natural contemplation.

5) The Conversion of Benedict: his dialogue with Scholastica

6) The Conversion of Gertrude the Great (of Helfta)

7) Benedict on conversio/conversatio.


RB-80, “Monastic Formation and Profession,” pp. 437-466.



Primary sources will be studied that describe the dynamic interrelationship between ascetical practice and contemplative vision.  The ancient art of lectio divina will be particularly highlighted as a key to understanding monastic ascetical practice.  Evagrius Ponticus and John Cassian will be introduced.


Website Course Documents:

1) Evagrius and Cassian on praktike/theoretike

2) Apophatic and kataphatic theology

3) Lectio Divina


1) Brown, ch. 6 (Clement of Alexandria on the passions) pp. 122-139.


4) FROM VICE to VIRTUE (weeks 8-15)

This will be the longest section of the course, consisting of classical philosophical and early Christian ascetical models of virtue and vice. Stairways and Instruments in The Master and Benedict. The eight deadly thoughts in Evagrius and John Cassian. 


Website Course Documents:

1) Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, selections on virtue and vice

2) Pseudo-Aristotle, on the Virtues and Vices

3) Selections from Evagrius and Cassian


1) Brown, ch. 11, “Desert Fathers”, pp. 213-240

2) RB-80, Introd., “The Origins of Monasticism in the Eastern Church,” pp. 3-11.



a) PEDAGOGY: (1) The rich ethnic and cultural diversity of Christian thought will be highlighted through study of primary sources from the Jewish, Roman, Greek, Celtic, Anglo-European, Slavic, Middle-Eastern (Syriac), North African, and North American traditions.  In order to profit from the cultural and ethnic diversity of the student body, students are encouraged to bring to discussion forums the particular ordering and grouping of virtues and vices characteristic of their own cultural heritage.

b) ASSESSMENT: The seminary student body represents a broad spectrum of multicultural diversity, with a concomitantly wide range of preference for either verbal or written presentations.  In recognition of this, students will be offered the opportunity of choosing either: [a] a research paper; or [b] a 15–-20 minute PowerPoint or web–-page presentation.


....x....   “”.