We are told that he was whipped with such force that he became “speechless from the tortures.” Now he lay alone on the bare earth, unmoving, “as if dead.” This is the image of the desert ascetic that we encounter in the opening chapters of Athanasius’ fourth-century Life of Antony. It is a strange, bewildering image of utter helplessness and vulnerability. Elsewhere in the Life, Antony is portrayed as anything but helpless; he is a heroic fighter, capable of overcoming every temptation, every obstacle placed in his way by the demons who inhabit the desert. He is an alter Christus who routs the demons and makes of the desert a city for a generation of monastic fighters who will follow him into those wild places. But here in this moment he overcomes no one. Instead, he himself has been overcome. He has been reduced, radically, to a condition of pure need, of abandonment and desolation.

This scene occupies a relatively brief space in Athanasius’s narrative. Indeed, with the help of friends, Antony soon recovers and continues his assault on the demons, eventually realizing his heroic destiny. Still, I would suggest that the image of the monk lying alone and half-naked on the bare earth, a mute victim of frenzied assault by nameless demonic forces, has a significance that far transcends its brevity. This is because it expresses, so eloquently and disturbingly, the feeling of psychological unravelling that was such a prevalent part of the early monastic life. And because it helps us to grasp, in spite of the simple triumphalism of Athanasius’s narrative, the immense complexity and cost of setting out on the ascetic path. Part of this complexity is revealed in the very character of the experience it expresses. The ascetic has entered a place of profound need. In a sense, he is in this moment nothing but need. He is struggling to survive, and everything else, every extraneous consideration, has been swept aside. In his weakness and vulnerability, he has been reduced to an elemental simplicity. And yet, what is unfolding within him in this moment is anything but simple. His identity, his very sense of self has begun to be eroded. A bewildering array of competing claims tears at him. He longs for a resolution, for a safe haven that – for the moment anyway – eludes him. In his simple need, he is vulnerable, exposed to an entire universe of anxiety and concerns that tests him, that threatens to destroy or remake him.

It is not easy to reconcile this notion of simplicity – at once complex and ambiguous and demanding – with the often clearer, more straightforward sense of simplicity that we so often encounter in the early Christian monastic tradition. Statements about the aims and purposes of early monastic life often give the impression of simple clarity. Cassian, for example, summed up the end of monastic life in essentially simple terms: the skopos or proximate goal is purity of heart, and the telos or ultimate goal is the kingdom of God. Such simplicity is also evident in the way monastic beginnings were understood: Antony’s “call” to the monastic life involved nothing more or less than a complete and open-hearted response to the Gospel injunction to “sell what you possess and give it to the poor” (Mt 19:21), to renounce everything for the sake of God. … And there is a simplicity also in the way the monastic practice is understood: at its root, it means, as it surely did for Antony, lying alone on the bare earth, in utter abandonment to God.

Still, in an irony that was probably not lost on the early monks, but which often has been lost on modern commentators, the monastic ideal of simplicity is anything but simple. It is rather full of complexity, ambiguity, and depth. … I want to suggest that the simplicity admired and practiced by the early Christian monks, so often construed (wrongly, I believe) as a first order naiveté or credulity devoid of depth or subtlety, in fact contained and expressed a complex range of thought and feeling. More than this, it was, at least in its most mature expressions, a hard won achievement, realized only through a costly and demanding process of relinquishment.

Douglas Burton-Christie, “Simplicity, or the Terror of Belief: The Making and Unmaking of the Self in Early Christian Monasticism” in Cistercian Studies Quarterly, 40.4 (2005), 353-355.

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