In the desert tradition, vigilant attention to the body enjoyed an almost oppressive prominence. Yet to describe ascetic thought as “dualistic” and as motivated by hatred of the body, is to miss its most novel and its most poignant aspect. Seldom in ancient thought, had the body been seen as more deeply implicated in the transformation of the soul; and never was it made to bear so heavy a burden. For the desert Fathers, the body was not an irrelevant part of the human person, that could, as it were, be “put in brackets.” It could not enjoy the distant tolerance that Plotinus and many pagan sages were prepared to accord it, as a transient and accidental adjunct to the self. It was, rather, grippingly present to the monk: he was to speak of it as “this body that God has afforded me, as a field to cultivate, where I might work and become rich.
[…T]he cumulative experience of ascetic transformation quietly eroded so stark an image of the self. Life in the desert revealed, if anything, the inextricable interdependence of body and soul. When Dorotheos himself came to write as an old man he noted that in some mysterious way, it was possible to “humble” the body–by physical labor, fasting, and vigils–so that one could actually bring humility to the soul. So intimate a connection of body and soul both puzzled and reassured him.
[…]In the desert tradition, the body was allowed to become the discreet mentor of the proud soul. No longer was the ascetic formed, as had been the case in pagan circles, by the unceasing vigilance of his mind alone. The rhythms of the body and, with the body, his concrete social relations determined the life of the monk: his continued economic dependence on the settled world for food, the hard school of day-to-day collaboration with his fellow-ascetics in shared rhythms of labor, and mutual exhortation in the monasteries slowly changed his personality. The material conditions of a monk’s life were held capable of altering the consciousness itself. Of all the lessons of the desert to a late antique thinker, what was most “truly astonishing” was “that the immortal spirit can be purified and refined by clay.” (Brown, 235-237)