Monday, 9 July 2012

Celibacy and asceticism - the single life

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The traditional Christian idea was (perhaps) that celibates (the unmarried, the single) ought to be ascetic - disciplined, regulated, self-denying of pleasure - and that such a life was (for most people) best done by living in community, under discipline.

The modern idea is pretty much the opposite: that singles in a sense ought to live lives of self-indulgence, pleasure maximization, willfulness - and that the single ought ideally to be autonomous, live alone, without discipline or constraint.

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So, the 'college' for the residential education of young people has gone from being an ascetic 'monastic' institution to an hedonic institution - a complete reversal.

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Asceticism used to be the highest ideal of holiness; yet it makes no sense to most people nowadays - it seems almost perverse.

Christianity is about theosis, sanctity, holiness - conformity to an external standard - and humans are seen as intrinsically prone to sin; hence the necessity of groupishness to save people from themselves.

Modernity is about self-development: asceticism gets in the way of this, the ideal is freedom of the individual will. Even when the individual will leads to misery, depravity and destruction - this outcome is accepted (even celebrated) since no higher goal than untrammelled self-expression can be imagined.

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Moderns can hardly stand the idea of life without the distraction and anaesthesia of unconstrained and open-ended self-indulgence.

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And modernity in its characteristic form of bureaucracy has made the collegial idea almost impossible, since authority is now a committee.

Spiritually, obedience to a committee is qualitatively different from obedience to a person: obedience to a committee is necessarily merely yielding one's will to superior force, while obedience to a person can be an act of love.

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If there is to be a repentance - the revival of the broadly 'monastic' ideal of ascetic, disciplined and communal living for the unmarried will surely be a part of it.

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2 comments:

J said...

I always wonder where the ideal of monasticism has suddenly disappeared in the West.

It is a big loss.

Where are the Jesuits, Dominicans, Franciscans? Jerusalem used to be full of them, now the monasteries are empty. I havent seen one in ages.

bgc said...

@J - I'm thinking more of the Benedictine or Eastern Orthodox monasticism than wide-ranging religious orders such as Jesuits and Friars, who perhaps have a greater tendency to run wild on their long leash, due to lack of oversight, and also to indulge in the good things of life.

I also think this is a big problem for celibate priests unless they live in quasi-monastic communities - they often become (or else the celibate priesthood attracts) people who are over-keen on eating, drinking, smoking, gossip and an epicene lifestyle.

But any revival of Christian asceticism and discipline for celibate men and women - especially in a group context - would be a very worthwhile start.

And despite their suspicion/ dislike of monasticism, evangelicals could lead the way on this; by founding self-funding 'boarding houses' on this basis - with oversight from a base church.