Christian Asceticism: Finding What Is of Ultimate Value
Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” - Matthew 19:21
Asceticism is derived from the Greek word askeo, askesis, meaning “training” or “exercise.” It was used in reference to the training and discipline of athletes preparing for competition, as in the Olympic Games, and was further used in defining the training of soldiers for the Greek City-States. Later the idea of asceticism in ancient Greece was applied to the wise and the intellectual, to the paid professional teachers (Sophists), and eventually to the ethical who advocated the control of human emotions (Stoics).
Platonism and Neo-Platonism, the philosophical/ascetical movement begun by Plotinus, both emphasized the ascetical ascent of the soul to pure knowledge and abandoning the lesser desires of the body.
While early Christianity grappled with the philosophical traditions of the Classical Greeks, as it did with the Scriptural tradition of Ancient Judaism; it was in the light of Jesus Christ that both inheritances were properly “baptized” for Christian use. This was most eloquently expressed by St. Paul in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, “but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,” (I Corinthians 1:23).
All Christians are called to be martyrs, not necessarily to the point of shedding one’s blood, but as the word martyr means witness, all are called to witness to the faith, and therefore witness to Christ. In the same way all Christians are called to be ascetics, not necessarily to be ascetics in the sense of isolated hermits or solitary nuns, but all are called to sacrifice worldly pleasure for the sake of discovering what is of true value and unending worth.
The Season of Great Lent is given to the Church each year as a time when we can seriously and prayerfully reflect upon what is of ultimate value in our lives and what is not necessary in our pilgrimage to the Kingdom of God. It is a far greater journey the Church calls us to during Great Lent than the traditional “what did you give up for Lent,” or abstaining from certain foods. While these are good places to begin the journey of Lenten Asceticism, they can become merely challenges to our human will, rather than moments of spiritual growth. The Church is calling us to the kind of spiritual awareness that was expressed by St. Basil the Great in the fourth century, in his work known as the Moralia. He writes, “whatever a person may possess over and above what is necessary for life, he is obliged to do good with, according to the command of the Lord who has bestowed on us the things we possess.” (Moralia) Here St, Basil reminds us that as Christians, if we have been given all we need for a good life, then what we have in abundance we should do good work with and for others, for ultimately all we have is not of our own making, but are gifts from God.
For the Christian asceticism is not a training or exercise in “self-denial,” it is a training in love. This training is not a matter of laws, rules, and regulations imposed upon us by the Church; rather it is a discovering of the Law of Christ within us, which is the Law of Love. St. Basil reminds us that commandments of Scripture allow us to become truly ourselves. In his work Long Rules, he teaches:
The love of God is not something that is taught, for we do not learn from another to rejoice in light or to desire life, …In the same way and even to a far greater degree it is true that instruction in divine law is not from without, but, simultaneously with the formation of the creature - humanity, I mean - a kind of rational force is implanted in us like a seed, which, by an inherent tendency, impels us toward love. This germ is then received into account in the school of God’s commandments, where it is wont to be carefully cultivated and skillfully nurtured and thus, by the grace of God, is brought to its full perfection.” (Long Rules)
In his book The Freedom of Morality, the contemporary theologian Christos Yannaras, being true to the ancient tradition of the Church, reminds us that asceticism is an ecclesial event, not an individual pursuit:
Christian asceticism is above all an ecclesial event and not an individual matter. It is the changing of our nature’s individual mode of existence into a personal communion and relationship, a dynamic entry into the community of the life of the body of the Church. The aim of asceticism is to transfigure our impersonal natural desires and needs into manifestations of the free personal will which brings into being the true life of love. (The Freedom of Morality)
Yannaras is saying, that asceticism allows us to discover our true selves within the body of the Church. For it is in the Church that our true self emerges as a being of communion and relationship. It is within the Church we gain freedom from the false self of sin, desire, and need, to discover our true life of love, which is manifested in the communion of the Body of Christ, the Church.
The rebellion of which asceticism seeks to be a cure is documented in Scripture in Genesis 3:5, “In the day you eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall be as gods.” As many of the Church Fathers taught, God became Man, so that Man could become God. This did not mean the rebellion of the autonomous, self-sufficient, false self as presented in Genesis 3:5, but to become Christ-like, a person in communion with others (Church), sharing one’s goods with others (Charity), and laying down one’s life for others (Salvation).
While the practice of asceticism can take on many forms; fasting, penance, chastity, charity, prayers, prostrations, participation in liturgy, pilgrimage, etc., ultimately it is to free us from what is false and leads to death and to crown us with what is true and leads to eternal life and unites us with the Communion of Saints.
- Rev. David A. Fisher