"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Ascetical Body in Clothes

One of the especially egregious aspects of certain holy fools is their refusal of clothes. Going about naked (as with the early St. Francis of Assisi, or St. Symeon Salos), or in the clothes of the opposite sex (as St. Xenia of Petersburgh is said to have done), or otherwise very shabbily attired, is not uncommon among these heroic ascetics. Clothes can often be taken as the garments of a comfortable existence that must literally be shed.

If you read Scripture you know that clothes are mentioned not a few times, and always with significance--e.g., Adam and Eve being given post-lapsarian garments, Joseph's multi-coloured coat, the seamless garment of Calvary, and so on. What are we to make of such references, and of clothes and their significance? A recent book by Hannah Hunt looks at these and related questions: Clothed in the Body: Asceticism, the Body and the Spiritual in the Late Antique Era (Ashgate, 2012), 237pp.

About this book we are told:
Hunt examines the apparent paradox that Jesus' earthly existence and post resurrection appearances are experienced through consummately physical actions and attributes yet some ascetics within the Christian tradition appear to seek to deny the value of the human body, to find it deadening of spiritual life. Hunt considers why the Christian tradition as a whole has rarely managed more than an uneasy truce between the physical and the spiritual aspects of the human person. Why is it that the 'Church' has energetically argued, through centuries of ecumenical councils, for the dual nature of Christ but seems still unwilling to accept the full integration of physical and spiritual within humanity, despite Gregory of Nazianzus's comment that 'what has not been assumed has not been redeemed'?  

Contents: Introduction; Hellenistic insights into the human person; Biblical understandings of flesh, body and soul; Desert teachings on the body and asceticism; 'Virgins of God': manly women and transvestite saints' 'Enemy' or 'friend': Climacus's integration of the body; The Syrian perspective on asceticism; Key Syrian sources: apochrypha and anonymity; Pseudo-Marcus, Messalianism and synaesthesia; 'Clothed in the body' as a metaphor for incarnation; Heterodox Christologies and the heresiarchs; Orthodox Patristic formulations; Conclusion; Bibliography; Index.

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