This doctrine arose out of a desire to discipline and control the desires of the flesh so as to concentrate on spiritual matters and the development of spiritual faculties. This practice has been around for a long time and has formed part of the doctrine of most major religions. The word is derived from the Greek askeo which means ‘to train’ or ‘to exercise’. Plato advocated the suppression of bodily desires in order to pursue knowledge. No doubt many of these ascetic practices which found their ways into Christianity were taken from ancient Greek philosophy.
In Christianity, it arose out of a desire to emulate Jesus, since the latter did not marry. They saw this as an example that should be followed and perhaps a practice that should be recommended for the whole of mankind. There are myriads of ascetic practices but we will focus on the major ones and these include the avoidance of marriage (celibacy) which presupposes the complete avoidance of sexual intercourse, the avoidance of society, fasting, praying and so on.
The earliest monastic settlements were established in Egypt and what must have started as simple regulations of conduct as we see from the writings of Paul; for example his writings about the different hair styles for men and women and the advice that women should cover their hair, (1Cor11) turned in just three hundred years into one of the most powerful movements within the Church. Suddenly there were monastic communities established in the desert and various communities of virgins married to Christ.
Whether this practice actually helped the human beings who practiced it to attain to higher spirituality is open to debate. In fact, Paul never gave a general advice regarding celibacy and in Romans chapter 7, advised that it may be better to avoid marriage but that those who are unable to exercise the necessary self-control should take a wife and in the case of a woman should take a husband. In the Old Testament and even in rabbinic Judaism, ascetic practices were regarded as blasphemous in the refusal of the creature to enjoy the bounties provided in Creation by God.
What Paul seemed to be advising here is self-control. Being able to understand the desires of the body and being able to fulfil these desires without indulging in excesses while at the same time adhering to the Laws of God is the middle way of Pauline Christianity and is also the middle way advocated by Jesus. Jesus did not practice asceticism, He never advised that His Teaching be practised in some solitude but among the people. He drank, ate, was clean and moved freely among the people. The fact that He did not marry has nothing to do with asceticism. If we look at His ministry, where was the time for marriage and the raising of a family.
Isolation in some wilderness must have led to severe psychological problems and the rigorous life of constant fasting and so many other things that were adopted were nothing more than an abuse of the physical body which is a gift given to us for our maturing on earth. This abuse however, is a transgression against the Laws of God that will not go unpunished. We do not have to do anything extraordinary for us to be pleasing to God. All we need to do is to be sound mentally, physically and spiritually and have the volition to adhere to His Laws.
Asceticism can even retard a soul’s development. Not only will the individual miss much of the necessary experiences which he needs in the outside world, he also weakens his physical body, preventing the spirit from using in to the full. The spirit even severs itself much sooner from the maltreated body and this person will have to relive the major part of his earth life again. People have wasted thousands of years in the process.