Encratites & Apotactics

Renunciators, we might call them in English, from what little we can know about life at the edge of the Christian communities, through the first century or two. They were ascetics who renounced private property, meat, wine, women, song, and what have you. Many also rejected the Epistles of Paul, and the Book of Acts, and might sift pick and choose through the Gospels, too, for they were above being told anything.

From what I can make out, these prototype “gnostics” did not wander in the deserts of Syria or Egypt, or form any regular orders, but went no farther than the suburbs of the town. The impression I first got of them (from Clement of Alexandria, I think) was “very proud,” and full of what we call today “virtue signalling.”

More generally, “full of it,” like our modern vegans, socialists, greenies, and health freaks — with their superior airs.

Someone else can devote his life to studying them, which means trying to reconstruct people and events that left no, or very little, trace of themselves, and are a speck on the horizon of Christian antiquity. The attitude of Fathers of the Church who mention them seems only to be mild irritation. But like our modern antinomians — those “free thinkers” who make up their own personal religions, as they go along — they were mere consumers.

They were consumers of radical ideas, who like the Puritans who came long after them, liked to dress up, and were possibly a godsend to cosmeticians and tailors, while pestering their neighbours to ban this and that.

Any attempt to confuse their works with the foundations of Christian monasticism, will err. For from their beginnings, monks and brothers, nuns and sisters, sought regulation and discipline. The Desert Fathers had no inclination to dissent from the Church; those who did soon left it, and abandoned their hardships. The course they had chosen was just too tough.

The desire of eremites and coenobites alike was to enter into the spirit of Our Lord, more deeply; those in the wilderness to live his Forty Days. Through century after century to the High Middle Ages, the recluse thought of himself more on the analogy of a soldier — often on guard at the frontier — than as any kind of revolutionist. In confusion they deferred to Central: the living authority of a divinely founded Church.

The Church, for her part, has counselled prudence — Prudentia, the highest cardinal virtue — with remarkable consistency through the ages. In breadth, it is a whole galaxy of virtues, known to the sages of other religions, as well as to our own. We paired it with justice — the goddess Justicia — and kept it enthroned. Christianity, as I like to put it, is the most prudent religion.

Not prudence, as a balance to the transcendent Gloria, though it is an anchor for mystical flights; but prudence in Christ, whose very parables “concede” so often to reason and common sense, even while they dramatize a paradox. And, a very conventional prudence, to start from, which in its fully human form, stops to think always, “Where is this leading?”

The fast in season, or the fast for life, is to a purpose. It will never be an end in itself. The same pertains to all Christian asceticism. Our vegetarianisms are not for the sake of the animals, just as Saint Francis’s kindness to animals was not meant as cute sentimentality.

Our husbandry of nature is among God’s assignments, from the beginning of Genesis; it expresses thankfulness for a very precious gift, that has accompanied the gift of life. There is no ecological “instruction manual,” because it explains itself to our native instincts. We look around, and find everything we need, when we come to look for it.

We do not place ourselves above receiving this gift from the highest: as it were, we do not look the gift-horse in the mouth. We are not the judges of God, who gave it, but quite the contrary.

To a Christian mind, we must do His Commandments, which are basic, and tell us how to live. “Beyond” them lies the road home. We are called, we go there, earnestly seeking the way.

Or, we go our own way, like the forgotten Encratites and Apotactics.