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Virginity was a vital aspect, and perhaps one of the most important, in becoming a monk in the early Syrian monastery. To this day the pure and chaste are revered in the church, and even in purely philosophical terms outside of religion, virginity is associated with certain aspects of incorruptibility.
Overall the life of a monk was austere, and the goal of the monastery was to live severely, and the concept of sex had to be left out of the spiritual battle of the monks. Many monasteries forbade the entrance of women, and many nunneries forbade the entrance of men. Many monks took vows to never speak to women, including their own mother’s. Those monks that had to deal with women on a daily basis would never look directly at them, and if they did not have to would not answer to them. The same went for the nun’s, and there were many young woman who found great inspiration in the nun that didn’t see or speak with a man for over 18 years.
In some parts of Syria and in certain monasteries it was perfectly normal to castrate themselves. And there are several referances in chronicles and histories of these “eunuchs” of god.
Over time poverty too had become a fundamental aspect of Christian monasticism. The general life of the early monks was extremely austere. Generally their cells, which in Syriac literally translated into “prison cells,” had perhaps only a bed and a bowl for food. Most monks even refused to take alms, and most monasteries forbade the monks from possessing any property; some rules indicated that even monasteries themselves could not possess any property.
More to come in a few days . . .
I found this amazing video posted recently on Youtube of the church built around the pillar of Saint Simeon.
I am currently in the process of writing a book on ascetic practice. Along the path of research I come across some interesting information, which I share with all of you. Among the topics that interest me today are ascetic diets, or the foodstuffs of the soul. In so many ways ascetic diet is such an ironic term, as the body and the flesh are such worldly elements in the realm of a meditative soul, however the soul is still intact with the body, and therefore is to some degree attached to it.
Among the interesting diets that I have come across in my research is how many of monks who tried desperately to practice asceticism came into the conflict of desire and will. Very often monks who had tackled the physical aspect of ascetic life, found that supressing appetite to be one of the most horrible experiences. Some monks developed severe eating disorders by trying to starve themselves. For example, the very famous cases of Theresa of Avila, who used to an olive twig to induce vomiting, or Saint Catherine, who both suffered of what is now known as “holy anorexia.”
In all these writings of mine on the philosophies of asceticism, hermeticism, and the path towards earthly renunciation, I have always been somehow attracted to those men and women who embody in their lives such ascetic virtues. Henry Darger seems to be among them. I have followed his interesting story for some years now, and he is an enigma to me as well as countless others who are intrigued by his outsider art, and by his austere lifestyle.
Darger was a devout Catholic, who attended mass daily, lived simply, and wrote prolifically. An upublished work several thousands of pages in lenght with hundreds of drawings, titled In The Realms of the Unreal.
If you are ever in a city or town that has his artwork on display please check it out. Also, check out as much info as you can on him. His wikipedia article has good and reliable sources.
Also, there is a wonderful documentary that is available about him for free to watch on Youtube:
All ascetics either strive for or experience stillness. Stillness is both a term to explain what to strive for, but it is also a physical state and space, which the mastered ascetic enters, and which the student ascetic strives to attain. But whatever the scholar can deduce of stillness, it presents many problems — does stillness exist on its own, or does it appear alongside its fellow virtues such as humility, silence, prayer, meditation, and fasting?
To most “stillness” may represent the virtue of silence, or peace. To others stillness may represent non-existence, or a complete “loss” of and an “enduring space of holiness.”
Whatever arguments one might offer the definition of stillness, it is often understood by everyone that in order to achieve some sort of stillness, there most be some form of renunciation. This renunciation may be the physical world, or the emotional baggage that many carry in daily life.
We see the quest and the existence of stillness in some of the greatest ascetics known to man, within Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Zen, Sufi, and Islam – all the ascetics seek and experience the mystical sensation of stillness.
Benedicta Ward writes of the Desert Fathers:
Their work was to live in stillness and know themselves thoroughly, so that the redemption of Christ might come upon their whole lives from beginning to end; they would live therefore at the limits of nature, and of human endurance, because of the glory ahead of them; and it is in this positive perspective that their asceticism is best understood.
Several collections of images in relation to Simeon Stylites the Elder.
Saint Simeon Stylites, shown twice. On the left he is about to step down from his column after being told to do so to show his allegiance to the church.
Bas-relief of St. Simeon Stylites
St. Simeon Stylites was one of the monks whose numbers grew considerably with the triumph of Christianity in Syria after it was integrated into the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine Empire, in 395. Some of these monks wished to live as Christ had and sought to isolate themselves so that they could pray and meditate; these monks became hermits. St. Simeon found an original way of doing this: he lived on top of a pillar. His epithet, Stylites, comes from the Greek word stylos, meaning “column.” However, his originality brought him many visitors. He is shown here with only his head sticking out above the structure built on the pillar. A bird, representing Christ, is crowning him with a wreath, a symbol of the saints in Christian iconography. A person on the ladder holds a censer
66 x 78 x 16 cm
Hama Museum 1088