“Take and read.” Augustine records in his Confessions (a.d. 400) that he heard those words come over his garden wall as he sat reading. He picked up a copy of Paul’s letter to the Romans that was near at hand and his eyes fell on this text: “Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts” (Rom. 13:13–14).
Augustine had become intellectually convinced of the truth of Christianity before this famous incident in his life. But he found that he lacked self-control over his sexual desires. He knew the kind of Christian that he wanted to be, but he felt that his will did not cooperate. He said that in reading Paul’s words in Romans, he was morally converted and made able to live as a Christian from that time forth.
This much of Augustine’s conversion is well-known. What is not so well-known is the title of the book he was reading when he heard the voice. He was reading The Life of St. Antony (c. 360) by Athanasius. This book illuminates the conception of holiness that Augustine pursued and that came to influence Christianity very widely.
Antony (c. 251–356) was one of the early advocates and exemplars of the ascetic life in Egypt, which was one of the earliest centers of asceticism. Antony embraced the ascetic vision of Christianity about 269. He practiced it rigorously, living as a hermit for about 20 years (285–305) and then forming a loosely organized monastic community.
Antony believed that his ascetic life was the life that Christ and His apostles had lived. His self-denial was a new form of martyrdom for Christ. Athanasius summarizes the advice Antony gave to other ascetics in this way: “For all the monks who came to him he unfailingly had the same message: to have faith in the Lord and love Him; to guard themselves from lewd thoughts and pleasures of the flesh, and, as it is written in Proverbs, not to be ‘deceived by the feeding of the belly’; to flee vanity and to pray constantly; to sing holy songs before sleep and after, and to take to heart the precepts of the Scriptures; to keep in mind the deeds of the saints, so that the soul, ever mindful of the commandments, might be educated by their ardor.”
What was the ascetic vision of Christianity that emerged in Egypt and would come to influence most serious Christians, not only in the late ancient period but through the Middle Ages and into modern times as well? Ascetic Christianity derives its name from the Greek word askeo, meaning “to train” or “to exercise.” Its original meaning referred to the training of athletes. The ascetic vision of Christianity that we find in Antony, Athanasius, and Augustine represents a radical commitment to holiness. They wanted more than the ordinary Christian life. They wanted the disciplined life of the spiritual athlete. They wanted to pursue perfection.
The ascetics spoke of going beyond the commandments of God that applied to all Christians. They sought to fulfill what they called “the counsels of perfection” or “the evangelical counsels.” In other words, they believed that Jesus had given advice that was not binding on all Christians, but which would aid those who wanted to be especially serious in their pursuit of holiness. They came to summarize those counsels in three points: poverty, chastity, and obedience to ecclesiastical superiors. They denied themselves property and family to live a life following the ascetic practices of their communities.