When seeking to answer the question, is Christianity hostile to physical appetites, we immediately encounter two serious definitional problems.  First, we must accept that we cannot speak about Christianity as though it were one entity: it has existed for nearly 2000 years, has spread to all corners of the world and adapted to many different cultures, and has numerous internal divisions over theological issues--not to mention structure and administration. One simply cannot speak as though a fourth century North African theologian, sixth century Irish monk, a twelfth century Moskovite Cosmopolitan, a sixteenth century German Reformer, and a 20th century American fundamentalist Baptist will all share the same outlook.

     And this is not even to mention the problems which arise when we speak of movements which have been declared heretical, such as the antinomian sects which have arisen repeatedly through church history, declaring their freedom in Christ from all religious and social law, or on the other side, heretical theologians like Origen, who castrated himself in literal obedience to Matthew 19:12, or sects like the Russian Skoptsi (Castrators), whose rejection of sexuality was so thoroughgoing that all members, male and female, mutilated their genitals and other erogenous zones. While both extremes are arguably outside the mainstream of "Christian" practice, both are following to extremes currents which are very much central to all Christian thought.

     Second, we have the question of defining "appetite." Proverbially, one man's meat is another's poison; certainly what is appetite for one man is freedom for another and dissipation for a third. This problem is in a sense not merely added to, but multiplied to something of geometric proportions by the first definitional problem, for what one theologian in one time and place will accept as a God-given appetite which may be legitimately fulfilled, another theologian in another time and place will denounce as an evil. At various times and places, asceticism in Christianity has been not only "hostile to appetites," whatever that may mean, but downright hostile to the body and all its needs.

     There is yet a final problem, and that is the standard by which the question is answered: is Christianity hostile to bodily appetites, as compared to what? To Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism or Confucianism? But then--for we encounter the same definitional problems there as when we ask which Christianity?--which Buddhism or Hinduism or Confucianism?

     Certainly no world religion has adopted unfettered expression and satisfaction of human appetites as its basis; all have at least laid them under both ethical controls of some sort, and generally advised moderation.  This counsel has had to coexist with other strands of asceticism and total condemnation of the body and its appetites, and with "antinomian" or mystical strands (branches of Sufism in Islam, Tantrism in Hinduism and Buddhism) which seek salvation (or enlightenment) precisely through the practice of these appetites. (It must immediately be said that these latter movements never claim to approve of the fulfillment of bodily appetites for their own sake, but always instrumentally, only for the sake of the enlightenment gained through their practice, and thus are in theory even less approving of the fulfillment of human appetites than the mainstream of the religion to which they are attached. Their enemies of course attribute to them a different view!)

     All of this said by way of introduction, it must immediately be stated that in general, Christianity has shown a hostility to the body and its appetites, and indeed, probably it is necessary to acknowledge that the heresies of asceticism and sexual denial have been closer to the core of Christianity than those of antinomianism. Whether or not this hostility is any greater than that of other religions is something which we ultimately cannot go into within the scope of these remarks.

     It is important to establish, at a very early point, that this hostility, even if primarily to sexual appetites, is not merely to them, but easily and quickly extends to physical appetites for food and drink as well as bodily comfort, and ultimately to a hostility to the body in general.

     A quick overview of popular legends of Christian saints offers some indication of this.  For instance, in Irish hagiography, we encounter the great St. Columcille, who had "a bare rock for a bed and a stone for a pillow;" this same saint would not even allow a cow within sight of his monastery, for, as he said, "where there is a cow there must be a woman, and where there is a woman there must be mischief."  (The Greek Orthodox church knows a similar practice at Mount Athos, where no female of any animal species is allowed into the monasteries.)

     The ascetic Madeoc of Fens disciplined his lusts by eating only roast barley and water for seven years, Ailbhe kept a vigil stretched outdoors on a cross of stone, regardless of the weather, reciting the Psalms, and Findchu, apostle to the Celtic Deise, gave up his seat in heaven to the king of the Deise, and then had seven smiths fashion seven sickles with which he flagellated himself for seven years to win back his place.  St. Amonius restrained desire by heating irons and applying them to his flesh, and St. Oengus by constantly scourging himself, standing in a barrel of cold water, and tying himself to a post with a rope around his neck.  St. Derville of Erris gouged out her eyes when someone complimented her on their beauty.

     A thousand years later, in 17th and 18th century Italy, we find similar deprivations on the part of the saints. In a thoroughly historical era, unlike the semi-legendary Irish saints, we find St. Giangiuseppe della Croce, born 1654, who "never allowed the vermin which infested his bed to be disturbed," and wore the same clothes for 64 years on end, clothes which covered a body encrusted with sores from his fierce self- flagellations; and when anything more than the most basic food was brought to him, he would say to his body, "Have you seen it, have you smelt it? Let that be enough for you."

     In a mid-18th century biography of St. Joseph of Copertino, otherwise known as the "Flying Monk" for his habit of floating off the ground in rapture, who died in 1663, we are told "He tormented his body so continuously and obstinately with pins, needles and blades of steel, and with such effusions of blood, that even now, after entire years, the walls of his cell and other places of his retirement are discolored and actually encrusted with blood."

     Now, I do not mean to imply that such practices were common among Christian believers, or even among monastics, but we must take in the fact that through centuries of popular preaching, the reading of the lives of the saints, and particularly in pilgrimages to the shrines of these saints, these are the attitudes which were held up to lay believers as exemplary for all Christians.

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"Where there is a cow there must be a woman, and where there is a woman there must be mischief." 




Email:  paraklesis@cblf.org