Monday, August 20, 2007


The women ascetic movement in Rome and the parallel one in Milan are basically known from the pens of Jerome and Ambrose writings by the end of fourth century. Both Jerome and Augustine and later Ambrose, wrote for their own purposes. All the three were avid advocates of the ascetic life and, in particular, saw it as the God-given solution for the ecclesial problem of women.
The beginning of the ascetic movement in Rome is lost in the mists of history, but it seems to have a spontaneous growth for some noble women, clustered in their great houses on the Aventine hill. The general history of asceticism in the west was boosted by two specific events. The first was a series of visits to Treves and Rome by the Great Bishop Athanasius, who was constantly, has been chased out from Alexandria into exile by a succession of emperors. Athanasius was recognized as one of the most avid promoters of the orthodox teaching on Christology proclaimed by the council of Nicea in 325.he also advocated an ascetic life. Secondly, Athanasius had also written a life of Anthony, the first hermit, which later had such influence on the life of Augustine, and he taught the twelve year old Marcella the secrets of Anthony’s monastic way.
Marcella was a young widow and she resisted all the efforts of her mother to have her re-married. When one rich suitor presented to her, she said to have remarked, ‘if I wished to marry…I would marry a man, not an inheritance’. Marcella is said to have lived a life of Asceticism alone for number of years and was then joined by several other women. These women were the ‘mother of the church’ in the fourth century. They include Sophronia, Asella, Principis and Lea. Meanwhile another of women met in a house close by owned by Paula, who was a relative of Marcella. Marcellina, sister of Ambrose of Milan, Paula and her group spent each day in Marcella’s house praying, studying, reciting the psalms and learning from Marcella the principles of the acetic life.
These women had been engaged in the ascetic practice for about forty years before Jerome arrived in Rome in the year 382. Jerome, in his forties at the time, had pursued the standard career, through Epiphanius, Paula and Jerome met and the thus began one of the great friendships of the early church. Jerome taught the women to sing the Psalms in Hebrew and practice of scriptural exegesis on their own. His friendship with Marcella and Paula seems to have been one of the more steadying influences in his life. After the death of Blesilla daughter of Paula who died of starvation after three months practicing the ascetic life under Jerome’s guidance. Jerome was later forced to leave Rome and he headed for Jerusalem, followed closely by Paula. Together, using her money and under her direction, they eventually set up double monasteries in Bethlehem and Jerome continued his biblical work. Without Paula’s help Jerome would not have had the money or leisure to complete his biblical translation and commentaries.
The writings of Jerome, especially, is laced both with a fanatical enthusiasm for ascetism and sarcastic vitriol against anyone who dared to question either his scholarship or his intention. In many ways, he used the women for his own personal agenda. It was only with then that he found any solace. Paula seems to have been the soul-mate, and together they are often named in a line of female/male friendship which starts with Tecla and Paul. Both Paula and Marcella are examples of the post-Marital celibacy which practiced by many roman noble women. An interesting comment by Palladiuus throws another light on the relationship between Paula and Jerome. Paula was, he says, “Hindered by a certain Jerome, for though she was able to surpass all, having great abilities, he hindered her by his jealousy, having induced her to serve his own plan.’
Jerome did not invent the asecetism practiced by the roman women but the credit goes to Marcella. Even though we do not have any words or teachings directly from these women, they speak to us across the centuries with their bodies. The virginal bodies of women offered to the world of the fourth century a powerful image of the advent of a new kind of women. These are the wealthy women and, as they disposed of their wealth, they offered to their household, including their slaves, the opportunity of gaining their freedom, or of joining them in the practice of the evangelical life. Paula’s own convent had three separate social and religious levels, but all the women dressed alike and joined together for meals and prayer. Moreover, all shared alike in the manual labor, which was an essential part of the ascetic life.
It appears that most ecclesial lives of virginity were post marital. There was an insistent propaganda in the early church against second marriage. This created a work place of women ministers for many communities, but also forced the churches to deal with the presence among them of many very young women often in control of large inheritance.
Many women were widowed as early as late teens and since, in general, the men folk did not become christen as easily as the women.
By the fourth century, huge numbers of women were taking on the life of virginity. The doctrine of virginity is based on a series of formulae, some arising from the experience of the writers rather than the practitioners, and some rooted in the scriptures. One of the most common biblical foundations was the parable of the sower, where fidelity to the gospel is rated according to the receptivity of the soil to the word of God. All the writers rate virginity at the top leve100%, widows’ rate at 60% and wives at 30%. The criterion was the level of carnality evident in the person’s life. Prostitutes, who were understood to be sunk in their bodies, were outside the scale.
Virgins have gone beyond the nature of women and now lead angelic lives. Both astonishment and fear are evident in the writings describing the phenomenon. The virgins are the glory of the church, the new aristocracy of faith. Female passivity was essential to their vision of the church and so the life of the powerful women virgins had to be tamed. All the writers’ exhibit great fear of freedom and independent women, and so, as the doctrine of virginity develops, the emphasis moves from freedom to obedience and submission. In men, it was said, the virtue of virginity elevates nature. In women, this virtue extinguishes nature. Women therefore, were in need of double redemption. The first, the choice of virginity raised them to the level of men; the second redemption, then helped them to attain to the transformation offered to the perfect. For all these writers, the male sex is stronger, more rational and closer to the divine. Women are inherently weaker, more prone to heresy and always daughter of eve.
Virgins, therefore, had to be secluded from the world. Silence, obedience, modesty and penance are recommended over and over again as the essential guardians of the virginal life. The consecrated virgin is an example to all the human beings as she came from God’s hands. Her body remains intact, with out penetration of any kind. Her physical integrity has been maintained. Her flesh is holy flesh, just as God created it. This highly emotive teaching was used to symbolize the pure intact church, unpenetrated by heresy. Virgins are likened to ‘uncut meadows’, ’untouched deserts’, and original ‘virgin forest’.
The new prevalence of women virgins showed that a new world was coming into being. ‘The things of the resurrection stand at the door.’ The ‘ugly scar’ of sexuality was being healed, and the ancient battle between the sprit and the flesh was being won by the spirit, in the bodies of women virgins. Women’s bodies, seen trough the projected sexual anxieties of men, were slippery with temptation. All signs of femaleness had been erased from these bodies. In the basilica, the place for virgins was surrounded by railing of pure white marble. The public veiling of virgins was a great triumphal act for the church.
It is obvious from this teaching that the practice of sexual renunciation represents, for this generation of sexually fearful and anxious men, the pinnacle of a kind of Christian perfection. Women’s life was governed by father and husband and strict obedience was demanded of them.
Church Father’s Contributions:
Ambrose taught that virginity in women was a virtue that transcended the course of nature. For him the male sex was always stronger, better and, in fact, the principal sex. Women carried in their bodies the weakness of eve, and thus had to endure the bondage, galling yoke and slavery of marriage. But this female weakness could be transcended by the practice of virginity. Mary had cancelled the debts of eve for all the women through virginity. Mary became his main weapon in the promotion of ascetic life. Virgins were the public sign of the victory of the church against their main enemy, sensuality.
Augustine found that he could live as a Christian only in all male-world. He instructed husbands to love their wives, but in the spirit of the scriptural dictum: ‘love your enemies’.

Going through the history it truly reflects that it is His-Story, where this “His” always tried to subordinate “Her” with his creativity basically got from her. The so called church father unable to control their sexual thirst tried to control the women through their patriarchal power and proposed these things like virginity and asceticism. As male being we always forget that we are not only image of God but this image can into being through a woman. The pain a women under goes while carrying her child or conceiving itself prove she is the starting and ending point on His-story in this world.
Ø Mary T. Malone, Women and Christianity, New York: Obris Books, 2001.
Ø Patricia Wilson-Kastner, A Lost Tradition, London: University Press Of America, 1981.
Ø Prasanna Kumari, Feminist theology perspectives and praxis, Chennai: Gurukul Lutheran Theological College, 1999.

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