Saturday, 2 May 2015

Michael Magree: Theodoret and the Love of an Ascetic

A recurring explanandum in late-antique Christian studies is the extreme to which Syrian Christian ascetics went in their spiritual rigors. It was a subject of discussion in late antiquity tself, and an interpretation that rewards further examination is that of Theodoret of Cyrrhus. In his reflective “Treatise on Divine Love” appended later to the Historia Religiosa, he develops the theme that “it is clearly desire for God that has made them [ascetics] surpass the limits of nature” (31.4).

In the treatise, Theodoret argues for two points. First, he says that the attraction to God is transgressive, that is, it subverts common conceptions of what is natural. Attraction to God is not mere distant admiration from some secure standpoint of human nature; instead, desire for God is profoundly disturbing. Sexual infatuation is a primary analogue for this divine attraction. Secondly, Theodoret claims that God is not merely the beloved but also the lover. Theodoret uses Romans 8:35 to highlight both God’s love for humanity and humanity’s love for God. For Theodoret, the result of the lover’s transgressing beyond the bounds of nature is union with God’s own dynamic loving.

The communication will conclude with a tentative proposal. In comparison to Theodoret’s other conceptualizations of asceticism in the Historia Religiosa and elsewhere, this conceptualization in terms of love seems to connect to the theme of loving union with Christ that has deep roots in specifically Syriac ascetic ritual, practice, and narrative. This connection deserves further study.

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