Being Orthodox 13: Asceticism

St Mary of Egypt lived a life of extreme asceticism after she repented of her life of extreme dissolution.
St Mary of Egypt lived a life of extreme asceticism after she repented of her life of extreme dissolution.


In the last post, we spoke of the courage of the Christian, and how that can lead to various kinds of martyrdom. Few of us today will be called upon to display the courage of a martyr, although the world seems to be changing for the worse such that martyrdom is making a comeback in certain regions. In times of persecution, there was another category of people who were deeply respected and venerated: the confessors; those who suffered arrest and torture for their faith but survived their harsh treatment. A confessor is a martyr who lived instead of dying, albeit at the price of great sacrifice.


This spirit of self-sacrificial love lies also at the heart of the way of life that is called ascetism. The word ‘ascetism’ has roots in the Greek for athletic training or preparation for an athletic event. It commonly takes the form of three main practices, fasting, praying and charity. These three practices are grouped together and described in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6:6-18. Orthodox Churches vary in the number and timing of the days they fast each year, but the ancient fasts of Lent and Wednesdays and Fridays are common to most Churches. These are communal fasts, fasted by everyone who is a member of the Church as one body and with one heart, although of course concessions are made for the sick, the elderly, pregnant and nursing mothers and children. The benefit of organised communal fasting, as opposed to the voluntary ‘personal’ fasting preferred by many other Christians, is that it brings the community together in a shared experience. The individual loses herself, sacrificing her own selfish will in order to become a part of something much bigger than herself.


When we fast communally, we can encourage and support each other to achieve the goals of fasting: self-control; gratitude for the food we take for granted; empathy with the poor and hungry of the world and a mindset that rises above the merely material and instead focuses on the transcendent. So long as it is practiced sincerely and with these goals in mind, fasting can be a powerful tool for regenerating both the individual and the community. Of course, like anything else in life, fasting can also be misused and even abused. Christ Himself in the Sermon on the Mount pointed out how it is possible for a person to use the deprivations of fasting to extort sympathy and pity from others or to make oneself a vain ‘spiritual hero’. Thus He advised us to go about our lives when fasting in exactly the same way we go about them when we are not fasting, so that no one might notice the difference and lead us down these undesirable paths. Then there is excessive fasting that leads to a deterioration in health, or ornamental and merely routine fasting; the fasting of the body but not of the spirit, mind or heart. But the misuses of fasting should not make us reject the benefits it brings when it is properly used. It is always regrettable to throw out the baby with the bathwater.


Prayer comes in many different varieties in Orthodox Christianity. There is the personal and the communal, the formal and the informal, the spoken, the sung and the silent. The sincere Orthodox Christian does not seek to increase his ‘times of prayer’ but to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). In the end, he wishes not merely to pray, but to become prayer. Prayer is a relationship with God, a communion with Him, a sharing of one’s life with Him. It’s ultimate goal is to lose yourself so completely in Him that you find your true self, that humble, loving and truth-filled self that is the image and likeness of God. Following a venerable ancient tradition carved out in the early Church and refined in the desert monasteries and convents, prayer becomes something that is a part of the very fibre of one’s being. One lives constantly and completely enfolded within the presence of the God “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), rejoicing in that presence and drawing strength from it as he shares the every aspect of his life and being, little and big, with the God who is Love. For the mature Orthodox Christian, prayer is not about getting what you want from God or even being blessed by God with material rewards, as seems to be the emphasis of those who preach a ‘prosperity gospel’. It is about the ultimate act of love – losing the self in voluntary surrender to God, who sanctifies that self and returns it to you transformed and transfigured. If God is love, and we are the image and likeness of God, then the greatest thing we can do is to become love also. Prayer is a tool for achieving that selfless, unselfconscious love for God, for other human beings and for all the creation. In Coleridge’s immortal words, “He prayeth best who loveth best Both man and bird and beast.” (Rime of the Ancient Mariner).


If prayer is the inward expression of love, then charity is the outward working of love. Sincere faith produces the fruits of good works, and love without corresponding actions is no real love at all. The Orthodox Christian gives freely and generously, not only of their money, but also of their time and energy and talents. Many laypeople in the Church admire the ‘servants’ who have formal roles to play in the Church, the clergy, deacons, Sunday School teachers and so on, but are content to leave the ‘service’ to them. But in fact, service is not the responsibility of some elite within the Church, but the necessary character of every Christian. I would go so far as to say that the Christian who does not serve others is not a complete Christian, and the body of servants in the Church is exactly the same as the body of members of the Church. There are no exceptions.


This often requires that same self-sacrifice we have been talking about above, and it costs us to give to others. But we cannot say that Christ did not warn us. When He pointed out that to be His disciple we must sell all we have, take up our cross and follow Him, He wasn’t just speaking to the Twelve or the Seventy. He was speaking to every single person who wished to follow His path, including you and me. Keep in mind that self-sacrifice in Christianity is ultimately a winning deal for us. The more we give, the more we receive, and not necessarily in kind. When you give money, you proabably won’t receive money in return, but you will receive the inner joy of seeing the life of a child of Christ made better. And as you practice charity (again, for the right reasons, not the wrong ones) something wondrous and beautiful and usually totally unexpected happens. You yourself, the giver, change. In the very act of giving, your own heart softens and becomes more tender, more loving, more Christ-like. You have partaken of the work of Christ and must inevitably therefore come closer to Him. As the late Fr Bishoy Kamel famously said, “Love is the only thing that, the more you give it away, the more you have of it yourself”.


This is one of the deep mysteries and paradoxes of Christianity. The only way to ‘win’ is to willingly ‘lose’. Asceticism is the practical expression of this profound principle which was expressed by Christ in a variety of different ways. In order to truly live, you have first to die. The seed cannot become a fruitful tree unless it falls to the ground and dies. Those who hold onto their lives lose them; those who lose them for Christ find them. If you want to follow Christ, sell all you have and take up your cross. It is only by completely forgetting ourselves in an agony of love that we can find our true selves in an ecstasy of love. Its most poignant example was the cross and the resurrection of Christ.


Ascetism therefore teaches us not to be over-dependent on the material things of this world, not to put our hopes in the ‘things that are passing’, but rather to store up our “treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:20,21). We are not of this fallen world, but sojourners, strangers travelling through a foreign land, a land made foreign by the evil that has infested it, travelling always with the memory and hope of our true home spurring us on. The traveller does not put down roots amidst his travels, but lives in a tent that is but a poor shadow of his true home with his true Father. The Christian owns and uses money and possessions, but never lets them ‘own’ him. Whether he has or he has not is matter of little importance to him, for his mind is on other things. Thus St Paul wrote with invincible serenity, “I have learned in whatever state I am to be content … I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11,13).

The practice of ascetism was inherited by the Christian tradition from the Jewish tradition of fasting, praying and charity but developed its own rationale and character more in keeping with Christian ideals. In contrast to other expressions of ascetism, Christianity does not view the body as something evil that needs to be destroyed, or at the least, weakened and emaciated. The body is a beautiful gift from God, vehicle of our physical existence in this world (and the next – for we shall be resurrected in the body) and the temple that houses not only our own individual spirit, but also the Holy Spirit Himself. To be clear: the physical body is a good thing, not evil.


The martyrs and the confessors did not relish pain and torture, for those are things that resulted form the fall of the world into corruption. But they endured those things for the sake of a higher cause. So also the Orthodox Christian who practices ascetism does not relish the deprivation she causes her body, but accepts it as a necessary evil in fallen world that one must endure in order to purify, sanctify that corrupted body, to heal it and save it in fact, and work towards restoring it to its original glory. Thus when we fast Lent and Wednesdays and Fridays, we are going back to the diet of Paradise, eating only non-animal products, thus returning to a harmonious relationship with living creatures that does not depend on us devouring their life in order to sustain our own. These fasts go back to apostolic times and are mentioned in the Didache, a document with origins in the time when the Apostles of Christ themselves still walked the earth. And of course, fasting was enjoined by Christ Himself who said that His followers would fast after He had gone (Mark 2:19,20).


This very positive view of the body held by the Orthodox Christian sits in stark contrast with the negative views of some other faiths, and even of some other Christian traditions. The human being consists of body, mind and spirit, and without any one of those, she is less than human. Which leads us to our next subject, the holistic view of the human being in the Orthodox faith.

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