Asceticism and Philokalic Spirituality: The Way of Beauty, Freedom and Love
As mentioned in previous posts, the word asceticism in modern times often has a negative connotation for people and conjures images of extreme mortification that is an affront modern sensibilities. Even for the faithful Christian, an understanding of asceticism as a way of life and expression of Christian identity may be amorphous at best and such practices may only be embraced episodically and minimally during penitential seasons. This is a strange state given the fact that asceticism is not solely and exclusively a religious reality but a human one. To invest oneself in anything of value, indeed to grow in any way physically or intellectually, requires ascesis; that is, it requires an exercise of the faculties of the mind and the regular use of the body. No one questions or doubts the value of the discipline of study embraced by the academic, the regular and intense training of the athlete, or the long hours of practice of the accomplished musician. Such asceticism is seen as natural and essential for growth and development.
Part of the value of reading the Philokalia is that it helps us begin to see more clearly the value and importance of ascetic practice as an integral part of our Christian life and identity. Christianity in part can be described as the life of ascesis; heeding Christ’s call to die to self and sin and live for God, to order the passions, resist temptations, to strive (agona - struggle) to enter by the narrow gate. St. John Chrysostom said: “we are baptized in order to struggle.” Asceticism is a whole way of life.
Anthony Coniaris has a wonderful chapter on asceticism in his work “Philokalia: The Bible of Orthodox Spirituality.” He offers much to ponder in the chapter, but what I found most intriguing was how he stresses the ascetical nature of Christian life and spirituality and why we should not see it as a burden but rather a blessing to be fostered. It is a gift through which we are drawn into the life of our Lord and open ourselves to be, as St. Paul says, transformed by the grace of God and move from glory to glory until the image of Christ comes to perfection in us.
For example, Coniaris tells us that asceticism is the means to a very precious end: restoring the original beauty of the image of God in which we have all been created. “Askesis is Philokalia, love for the beauty of God’s darkened image in man which it strives to restore to its original beauty. Askesis is the struggle to renounce my ego which looks at the world as existing only to satisfy my needs and desires. Askesis is described by St. Paul as ‘pressing on toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus’ (Phil. 3:14)” (p. 115)
Thus, asceticism in religious practice, is not about developing talents and abilities. Indeed, it not about the self at all, not an end but a means. It is the way of love. “The real aim of the monk’s lives was not asceticism but God Himself, and the way to God was the way of love. For God is love. Though they practiced austerity themselves, when they received guests, they received them as if they were Christ, hiding their austerity, and welcoming them with great charity. Archimandrite Sophrony wrote, ‘Acquiring . . . love is the ultimate purpose of Christian asceticism. . . The ascetic ideal is to cultivate love for God in man’s mind, heart and soul. . . The Church Fathers keep warning us that if ascetic discipline is devoid of love in the Lord, it turns into a source of depression and pride on account of self-righteousness. “No asceticism deprived of love comes near to God” (Ibid., 125).
While such ascetic practice may seem constraining and limiting what it leads to is a deep and personal liberty; a liberty that many of us perhaps have never really tasted and so have a hard time valuing. Simply put, ascesis sets us free. “The body is enslaved by the flesh. Attached to so many things, the body lusts after many unattainable prizes that ultimately it becomes enslaved. Askesis helps liberate the body from its compulsions. If we overeat, askesis seeks to help us overcome that enslavement. If we continually crave power and approval, askesis seeks to help us grow beyond this craving. If we are enslaved by lust, askesis seeks to help us shatter its shackles. Far from being stultifying and burdensome, the true goal of askesis is to set us free in spirit that we may commit ourselves totally to Christ our God. . . .Someone said, “In asceticism there are many thorns, but, oh, what roses!” (Ibid., 125).
This way of asceticism - the way of beauty, love and freedom - is meant for all. While Philokalic spirituality arises out of monastic life, all alike (monks and laity) are invited to the practice of asceticism. St. Nikodemus call us: “come and eat the the bread of knowledge and wisdom, and drink the wine which spiritually delights the heart . . .and become inebriated with the truly alert inebriation. Come all . . .together, lay people and monastics, all of you who seek to find the kingdom of God which is within you, as well as the treasure which is hidden in the field of your heart. And this is the sweet Christ!” (Ibid., 126)
For those living in the world, “‘askesis should not be identified with the extreme external disciplines associated with the word ‘ascetic’ - harsh fasts, long vigils, and strict self-denial regarding every earthly blessing. Rather the essence of askesis involves the struggle in our hearts between good and evil, God and Satan, the Kingdom and the world. Its goal is the new life in Christ. Its principles are the teachings of Christ. Its power is the grace of Christ experienced especially in the Eucharist and personal prayer. Askesis is for all, not only monastics. Each Christian is called to be a spiritual athlete who with his whole mind, heart and actions contends, within himself, family, and community for the supreme priority of the Kingdom, believing that all the other necessary things will be given to us as well by God’” (Ibid., 127).
While each of us has a different station in life depending on our particular vocation, each is called to the perfection of love demanded by and in imitation of our Lord. “There are not two separate spiritualities, one for the monks and another for lay people. There is only one spirituality for all. St. John Chrysostom wrote: ‘When Christ orders us to follow the narrow path, he addresses himself to all. The monastics and lay persons must attain the same heights. . . . they will have the same account to render’” (Ibid., 127).