A Suitable Abode for Christ': The Church Building as Symbol of Ascetic Renunciation in Early Monasticism

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Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture


Religious Studies







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In reading many early Christian texts from and about Egypt, one is struck by the importance of space for the ascetic lifestyle. Whether it be Antony locked in his desert fortress, the tightly arranged cells of Kellia in the Apopthegmata Patrum, or the landscape of the desert in so much hagiographical literature, the space in which the early Christians practiced ascetic renunciation was as infused with as much meaning as the ascetic practices themselves. Since few texts with descriptions of early ascetic space survive, studies have been left largely to archaeologists and art historians, not historians of Christianity.(n2) Only a handful of ascetic authors from the fourth through sixth centuries wrote about the theological significance they found in the building of churches. These include the wealthy Latin patron Paulinus of Nola (Italy), two anonymous members of the Pachomian monasteries in Egypt, and the Egyptian archimandrite Shenoute. The churches built for each of these late antique communities held deep theological significance. They symbolized the ascetic endeavors undertaken at those communities. Since for each writer, the ascetic struggle was constituted in slightly different terms, with different goals, practices, and interpretations of those practices, so were the church buildings imbued with different meanings. Yet, in each case, the church held meaning beyond its mere walls. Each was constructed as much by a theology and a discourse of ascetic discipline as it was by wood, brick, and stone.