Daily Meditations

Asceticism (Part I)

July 9th, 2019

The monks are forever talking about the struggle that life with God demands. Life in the wilderness is a continuous combat with the demons, and it demands constant effort from the monks. Mother Synkletika said: “Those who go to God have at first struggles and many hardships. But afterward the joy is unspeakable. Just as those who wish to light a fire are first bothered by the smoke and have to cry, but in this way reach their desired goal — for it is written: ‘Our God is a consuming fire’ (Heb. 12:29) — so we too must kindle the divine fire in us with tears and troubles.”

“A brother asked Father Arsenios for a word. Arsenios said to him: ‘Struggle with all your might, so that your inner effort may be in accord with God, and you will conquer your outer passions.'”

Father Zachariah was once asked what made a monk, whereupon he replied: “I think, Father, that whoever does violence to himself in all things is a monk.”

In another apothegm Christ himself says to a monk: “‘But I tell you: much toil is needed, and without toil no one can have God.’ For he himself was crucified for us.”

We have a hard time with such remarks, which promise us struggle and toil. One might think that the monks won’t allow us to live, that all they see is harshness and renunciation. But in the final analysis behind the insistence on asceticism lies a positive image of humanity. The monks believe that we can work on ourselves. We aren’t completely at the mercy of our predispositions or our past upbringing. The monks don’t try to find excuses for themselves in an education gone wrong; they don’t put the blame for their lives on other people. They take personal responsibility for their lives and shape them in the light of that responsibility. They don’t feel helplessly abandoned to their desires. Instead they trust the power that God has given us, a power by which we can liberate ourselves from the obstacles that might hold us back from life.

Today we have once again an understanding for asceticism. The physicist and philosopher of nature Carl Friedrich Weizsacker speaks of an ascetical global culture that is vitally necessary for the future of our planet. I was once invited by Austrian Television to a roundtable discussion on “The Passion for Asceticism.” Alongside me sat two psychologists, a man and a woman, and a business executive. At first I thought I would have to defend asceticism. But we all agreed how important asceticism is today, as a way to freedom, as a way of taking control of one’s own life and shaping it. In making this case we mustn’t confuse asceticism with killing off feelings. Asceticism actually means exercising so as to obtain a skill. In the ethical sense asceticism is “practice in virtuous behavior corresponding to the ideal.” Thus asceticism means something positive, exercising in order to acquire a religious behavior.

Not until the age of Stoic and Cynic popular philosophy did asceticism come to be viewed as renunciation and repression of drives. Christian ascetics put too much emphasis on this negative aspect, while with the monks the accent is placed on exercise, through which we train ourselves in apatheia, a condition of inner peace, in which we are open to God. For the monks, however, peace always comes out of struggle.

What Evagrius calls apatheia is for his disciple Cassian, who reformulated Evagrius’s teaching in Latin, puritas cordis, or purity of heart. This is a condition of inner clarity and purity, of love as openness for God. To achieve purity of heart, we have to struggle. We must do all the actions that we perform by way of asceticism for purity of heart, in other words for love. These are the instruments that can free our hearts from all the harmful passions that prevent us from ascending to the full measure of love. Thus we practice fasting, vigils, seclusion, meditation on Holy Scripture, etc. for the sake of purity of heart, which consists in love. Whatever we do we do in order to become lovers. For this reason love sets the standard in everything. Achieving love is the goal of our activity; the tools that we use to get there are of secondary importance. Thus the goal of asceticism is something absolutely positive: the attainment of love, of purity of the heart. The main point is not renunciation, but love, which is attained by struggling against the passions. We see here a distinctly positive view of human life.

~Anselm Gruen, Heaven Begins Within You: Wisdom from the Desert Fathers