But people don't naturally know how to pray, fast, be abstinent, or sacrifice to a great extent, because they are fallen. The Fathers set a firm ideal, and many times you realize by reading between the lines that they are writing a hortatory address (an exhortation) and not describing a situation that actually exists in most places. Or that even should exist everywhere. But by holding the bar VERY high, the hope is that people will inch a long a bit at a time.
I don't know. Maybe this bar itself is completely wrong? It is, again, obviously Platonian "soma sima," i.e. Pagan.
It's not "pagan" in some philosophical way; it's merely reality
to a pre-modern human being. For you especially, Heorhij, you have to be a bit more of an ethnographer when reading the Fathers, since your background in modern science and your social experience as a middle class person in 21st century America has led you to conceive of "reality" and the "body" in ways that are simply inconceivable to an ancient person. You have to imagine what it was like for them, understand it in that context, and then see how it might apply to you today in a different context.
Consider this: Before the advent of modern medicine and reliable contraceptives, sex and marriage were undeniably linked to (a) childbirth and (b) death. That's not a result of Platonic dualism -- it's reality
. Nowadays, we have the option to practice sex as something that is purely enjoyable without concern for its consequences -- that's simple not a physical possibility in pre-modern cultures. In the early Christian period, the average woman would start having children at about age 14 and would give birth between 4 and 8 times in her life. Most of these children would die before reaching puberty. One or two would be stillbirths and several would die as young children. Sociologists and prosopographers have shown that women in this period would need to give birth to a minimum
of five children just to keep the population stable. Even if you didn't care about having one or two children survive -- which you would for your own familial, cultural, and financial reasons -- you simply could not avoid the stark reality: If you were married and having sex, that meant you would
experience the disease, pain, and death of children and quite possibly your wife. Period. And you would experience the same many times over for your relatives and neighbors.
In other words, one didn't need to be some kind of weird philosopher to think that the body and this world weren't the greatest thing ever. You just had to look around! Death, disease, hardship, decay, and violence surrounded you every day. Disease was common and no one seemed to be able to cure it. Bodies themselves were usually not pleasant things: They smelled, had splotched skin, rashes, pockmarks from childhood diseases, and shocking signs of malnutrition. Corporal punishment was common, so you would often see bodies that were bruised, torn, with an eye poked out or a nose cut off or a missing hand. These kind of punishments and scenes were totally normal in most human societies throughout history (and even continue today in many places). It was not at all uncommon for whole cities to be destroyed by fire, plague, invasion, earthquake, etc. It happened a number of times to Antioch in this period! When armies or pirates came -- an event that was likely to happen at least once in your life -- that meant death or slavery for the majority. That's life -- not beautiful music, literature, or the wonders of the cosmos. The cosmos abuses you and over it you have no control.
And that doesn't touch on issues of social mobility, education, literacy, law, slavery, and, as we've discussed before, what ancient people actually thought about biology and medicine itself. Advocating sex would actually go against
the learned scientific/medical consensus of the time! Now, you may scoff at that because you simply dismiss the science, but people then believed it was real. No educated person could legitimately think otherwise. Just think how crazy you think it is for someone nowadays to deny evolution. That's how your understanding of the body and sex would appear to an educated ancient person in the Mediterranean. As for a common person, see above about the realities of the body.
As modern people living in a stable country, we have the luxury of romanticizing "body" and "matter" and life in general (but even that requires ignoring a lot of what goes on). Compared to the early Christians, we live in unimaginable splendor in huge mansions, in which there is neither frost nor humidity nor bugs. We understand the origins of many diseases, and, in those cases where we can't cure disease entirely, we can at least manage some of its symptoms. We can control when and if we get pregnant, etc. These social, political, and technological realities shape our intellectual imagination. We conceive of things like "body" and "matter" in new, unprecedented ways. In our imagined world, we already
control the body and thus have no need to attempt to master it through ascetic practice. That doesn't mean our imagined world is superior: It's equally as shaped and, often, revealed as wrong by an in-breaking of sorrow.
That's the important insight: We may think we understand the world. We may think we have mastered the body. But sorrow and death and sin and decay and tragedy far greater than we can comprehend continues, just as it did in the time of the Fathers. Their message, in the midst of that strife, was to cling to the one thing needful. That's the point of the ascetic endeavor: To reshape the realities of our life into the things of the Kingdom. Asceticism is supposed to help you experience your embodied self as something that belongs entirely to Christ. He is the Lord even of your desires and your flesh, just as He is the Lord of this physical world. So, denying
is merely a way of giving and receiving back, in that the thing denied -- even the body itself -- becomes transformed and marked as Christ's in the process.
That's the radical "corporeality" of the Fathers: A vision that sees the body, matter, and the cosmos as something that, despite evident ugliness, is being redeemed by Christ's salvific work. But it's not an easy, pie-in-the-sky, snap-your-fingers-and-praise-the-lord kind of redemption. It is brutally honest about the reality in which we find the world and the reality in which we find our embodied self (as described above). Therefore, we must struggle to bring "into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5). That's just reality. And doing so requires training (the literal meaning of asceticism), practice, and sacrifice. In fact, if it didn't involve sacrifice, it wouldn't follow the example of Christ, who denied himself even to the point of bodily death.