How to be a Bad Ascetic


I don’t mean to be negative here. A previous post, drawing from Fr Robert Taft, did explain that asceticism has a positive, humanistic, and even joyful meaning: we die to self to live for Christ and the total Christ which is every man and woman. This death to self will require leaving behind things that we had previously considered necessary for life. And, to say the least, that’s not easy. But we should never forget that asceticism is a real gift, because through it we will experience freedom, beauty, and authentic happiness. As Fr Taft wrote, “The refusal of submission to necessity is freedom, which is of the essence of all true life in Christ.” We are freed in particular from fear, for, as Fr Raimundo Panikkar has noted, “True asceticism begins by eliminating the fear of losing what can be lost. The ascetic is the one who has no fear.” Asceticism is also beautiful – think of how the faces of Abba Pambo and Abba Sisoes shone like lightning and thunder, a stunning example that “whoever is in Christ is a new creation” (2 Cor 5:16-17). All of this leads to joy. Ephrem the Syrian writes in On Hermits and Desert Dwellers:

There is no weeping in their wanderings and no grieving in their gatherings;
the praises of the angels above surround them on every side.

There is no distress in their death, nor wailing at their departing;
for their death is the victory with which they conquer the adversary.

As I reflect on both popular misconceptions and mistakes made in my own (very average) spiritual life, though, I think that it might be a good thing to reflect on what asceticism is not. We heard on Sunday that we must “take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them,” lest we lose any recompense from our heavenly Father” (Mat 6:1). Asceticism must not be about self-assertion or self-improvement. This might sound rather obvious, but we must remember that corporations and academia, to give just two examples, have their own forms of askesis, sometimes involving long hours of work and many other sacrifices, directed to decidedly secular pursuits. We do not have to subscribe to dubious historical claims about a “Protestant work ethic” to understand that confusion might easily occur.

We have already heard from Fr Schmemann that we are not to consider asceticism as the “idea that if we suffer enough, if we feel the hunger enough, if we try by all kinds of strong or light ascetical tools, mainly to ‘suffer’ and be ‘tortured,’ so to speak, it would help us to ‘pay’ for our absolution.” One shudders at the cruel image of God that would be at the root of such a practice. Asceticism must also not be a series of fierce attempts to flee from the self, world, or nature. A forced renunciation of reality is just impossible. “No one can rid himself of the cross of this existence,” Rahner wisely wrote. And it is hard to see the inevitably increasing self-consciousness and desperation resulting from these attempts as leading to any true surrender to the will of God. As one theologian has written about stabs at what he calls “latter-day Manicheism,” “Such would in the end become an act of despair, because it would not be the response to an invitation so much as an act of sheer will, hope against hope, which can only dissolve into hopelessness.” This might be the place to caution against a romantic fascination with self-destruction; Lent should not have a Wagnerian soundtrack.

Asceticism is not about following rules to reinforce a sense of ecclesial belonging. Asceticism is also not about adopting strange practices with esoteric names to enter a fantasy world, or what we might imagine to be a special “protected” place of religiosity free from doubts or the messiness of real life. Fr Columba Stewart, OSB, a monk and a scholar of monastic history, told us, “It is not the fourth century, even on the Holy Mountain. And there is not a single good reason why it should be.” The depressing ordinariness of our lives in “modernity” when compared to some supposed golden age of “tradition” is not a good reason. Finally, Jesuit missionaries in “New France” claimed that Native Americans fasted because they believed that fasting gave them direct access to the spiritual world. It made their eyesight acute so that they could mystically see what was far in the distance or even absent, including the elks or their enemies. So it was said. We can say that asceticism should not be about having visions, dreams, or any other mystical experiences.

Using an essay by Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia, we can also dismiss three myths about Christian asceticism. First, asceticism is not solely about the individual ascetic. It is true that there are texts that seem to suggest that asceticism is all about flight and withdrawal, isolation and introspection. And it is true that solitude is necessary. But we can read that Antony eventually makes himself available to others and serves “as a physician given by God to Egypt.” This pattern of flight and return marks the lives of Basil the Great, Benedict of Nursia, and Seraphim of Sarov, among others. Even when there is not a return, the ascetics would always pray for others. As the Historia Monachorum says, “There is not a village of city in Egypt and the Thebaid that is not surrounded by hermitages as if by walls, and the people are supported by their prayers as though by God himself.” To give a final example, an early Syrian ascetic, called ihidaya, or “single one,” to connote not just celibacy but a special relationship to the only Son of God, would live within a community to serve as an icon for others. A bishop could be an ihidaya. Ephrem the Syrian writes of one of these “single ones”:

In his lifestyle Jesus was ever depicted …
In humility he showed a “type” to his own people.

Second, asceticism is not about repression, but transformation. Dom Cuthbert Butler, in an older edition of Palladius, makes the point (although there are a few exceptions to what he has to say):

The mortifications recorded of the Egyptian solitaries, extraordinary and appalling as they were, were all of a kind that may be called natural, consisting in privation of food, of drink, of sleep, of clothing; in exposure to heat and cold; in rigorous enclosure in cell or cave or tomb; in prolonged silence and vigils and prayer; in arduous labour, in wandering through the desert, in bodily fatigue; but of the self-inflicted scourgings, the spikes and chains, and other artificial penances of a later time, I do not recollect any instances among the Egyptian monks of the fourth century.

The point is to discipline the body through “natural” asceticism, not to violent destroy it (the “artificial” practice of scourging would seem to express hatred). Ephrem the Syrian writes concisely and beautifully about this aim of transformation in On Hermits and Desert Dwellers:

Their bodies are temples of the Spirit, their minds are churches;
their prayer is pure incense, and their tears are fragrant smoke …

They greatly afflict their bodies, not because they do not love their bodies,
rather, they want to bring their bodies to Eden in glory.

Third, asceticism should not be about destroying all of our desires. Some texts do seem to lean towards this. But apatheia is not apathy, or a state that must inevitably be described in a negative manner: passionlessness, dispassion. Even Evagrius, who speaks of pathos (passion) rather disparagingly, will link apatheia to agape. And John Cassian would render apatheia in Latin as puritas cordis (purity of heart), which is decidedly positive. Bishop Kallistos writes, “It is no mere mortification of the passions, but a state of soul in which a burning love for God and for our fellow humans leaves no room for sensual and selfish impulses.”

Finally, asceticism is not for a spiritual elite. It is for everyone. In The Diary of a Russian Priest, Fr Alexander Elchaninov said all that needs to be said about this, “Asceticism is necessary first of all for creative action of any kind, for prayer, for love: in other words, it is needed by each of us throughout our entire life. … Every Christian is an ascetic.”

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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