Enter by the Narrow Gate: The Ascetic Podvig of Living in the World
There are few words as unpopular today as “asceticism” or “mortification.” It seems a strange contradiction that it is so when considering things religious, given the fact that in regards to most every human pursuit it is embraced without question. We forget that Christian asceticism presupposes human asceticism; as is true with the athlete, scholar or anyone who seeks growth and perfection in any field or endeavor of life. Every specific purpose requires some type of asceticism. It belongs to the vitality of human life. Discipline, strictness, exercise - - these we seem to be able to accept without question as necessary to every worldly pursuit, but when it comes to living and exercising our Christian faith, pursuing the path that Christ has called us to walk, we become unabashed minimalists. Again, a strange contradiction; for while asceticism is indeed a human value, it is truer to look upon it as a religious value. In this case, its purpose is deeper, embracing the whole person and not just an aptitude for exercising this or that activity. Thus there is no religion without asceticism and, if such a one should appear to exist, it would be a pseudo religion. The end of such asceticism for the Christian is love and it only has value in relation to love; as a means to arrive at it and as a reflection of its presence in our lives.
It seemed fitting then, as we consider the spirituality of the Philokalia and the writings of the desert Fathers, that we would examine what is described in Orthodox spirituality as the Ascetic Podvig of Living in the World. We are all called to engage in the ascetic struggle and discipline of our faith. To neglect such a thing is not mere laziness, but a failure to love. We should seek to give everything of ourselves to the Beloved, withholding nothing and walk along the path to life that he has opened for us at the cost of the Cross.
I offer here edited excerpts from a lecture given by Metropolitan Laurus (d. 2008). He captures the essential ascetical nature of Christian life stated above as well as the challenges to such a view for those living in and formed by modern culture.
“The situation of . . . a Christian who lives in the contemporary world, may be described, without any exaggeration, as extremely difficult. The whole of present-day life, in all its tendencies, in one way or another is directed against a person who is trying to live according to the teachings of the . . . Church. In life around us, in our environment, in our heterodox surroundings, everything is essentially a total denial of Christianity. If, in the beginning of the Christian era, Christ's beloved disciple, St. John the Theologian, could write, "... the whole world lieth in wickedness" (I John 5:19), then how much more justified we are in speaking thus of our times.
Being a true . . . Christian, prepared to preserve unto death one's faith in Christ our Savior, is much more difficult in our day than it was in the first centuries of Christianity. It's true there were persecutions then and Christians were tormented, but the Christians well remembered the Savior's words, " ... fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul" (Matt. 11:28). Being fortified by God's grace, they joyfully went to their martyrdom and gave up their lives for Christ. This was also the case in Russia during the torture and persecutions. Now nobody threatens us, living here in freedom, with persecution and torture, but in spite of this, a persecution in its most diverse forms is being carried on against Christianity and against the Christian way of life. Today we see that everything connected with faith in God, with the teaching of God's Word, with Christ's teachings and the teachings of the . . . Church, in one way or another is being driven out of a person's life. This process that is taking place in the contemporary world is a process of apostasy, and it can be detected in every aspect of life.
The Old Testament says, "God, to be sure, framed man for an immortal destiny, the created image of His own endless being; but, since the devil's envy brought death into the world, they make him their model that take him for their master" (Wisdom 2:23-25). We have been given our holy Christian faith so that we might obtain eternal life in blessedness. But to conform perfectly with the spirit of the Founder of our faith, Christ our Savior, and with His teaching, to really cleanse ourselves morally, to increase in virtue, to become acquainted with spiritual perfection, all this demands special, grace-filled cooperation from above, in addition to a [Christian] person's own efforts. This grace-filled cooperation is called sanctification and is given to us by the Lord. It is achieved by the Holy Spirit in the holy Church founded by our Lord Jesus Christ for our sanctification and salvation. You and I are children of the . . . Church. The question arises, do we live as . . . Christians are supposed to live? No, we are far from living in the way we should.
At our holy baptism we gave vows (if we were baptized as infants, our sponsors gave them on our behalf), we made a contract with Christ and in this way we became His children, His servants, the children of God. At baptism the holy Church sings, "As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Alleluia."
Therefore, since we belong to God, we must live in accordance with God's commandments, in accordance with Christ's teachings and the laws of the Church. We are baptized, we are . . . Christians but we don't know very much about our . . . Faith.
All who are born in the bosom of the holy Church through holy baptism are born into a new life. They grow and are brought up in the Spirit of Truth and receive in the spiritual life grace-filled gifts for life on earth, with the promise of eternal gifts for the future life. Thus, to live in the Church is an essential condition for a Christian's moral development.
The Church of Christ was founded by our Lord the Savior and He showed us the path by which we must go to Him, and He showed us how to follow His teaching. He said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). Consequently, we must go by this path, pointed out to us by our Savior.
Every path and every action demands a podvig—that is, an ascetic struggle. Therefore, our holy . . . .Faith is an ascetic faith demanding ascetic labor in the struggle with our sinful passions and lusts. How must we live and struggle? Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself shows an example: "For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you" (John 13:15). The saints also provide us with an example. In His Sermon on the Mount our Lord Jesus Christ gives us the whole essence of Evangelical teaching. This is found in the fifth, sixth, and seventh chapters of the Gospel of St. Matthew. In the Beatitudes the Lord teaches us that we must be born again spiritually and thus prepare ourselves for the beatitude of eternal life in the heavenly man signs. The first step towards this is to recognize one's spiritual emptiness, one's sinfulness and worthlessness, to become humble. This is why "blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:3). But only those who observe all the commandments will achieve this. "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven" (Matt. 7:21).
In order to go by the path that our Lord pointed out in the holy Gospel, we have to take ourselves under control, we must check and test ourselves.
Bishop Theophan the Recluse says:
The true Christian tests himself every day. Daily testing to see whether we have become better or worse, is so essential for us that without it we cannot be called Christians. Constantly and persistently we must take ourselves in hand. Do this: from the morning establish thoughts about the Lord firmly in your mind and then during the whole day resist any deviation from these thoughts. Whatever you are doing, with whomever you are speaking, whether you are going somewhere or sitting, let your mind be with the Lord. You will forget yourself, and stray from this path; but again turn to the Lord and rebuke yourself with sorrow. This is the podvig of spiritual attentiveness.
St. John of Kronstadt says:
Every day, hour, and minute, keep a strict watch and consider every thought, desire, and movement of the heart, every word and deed, and do not let yourself be defiled by one sinful thought, desire, or movement of the imagination, in word or deed, knowing that the Lord is the Righteous Judge Who is judging you every instant and is evaluating the inner man. Continually keep yourself pure for God.
Now the question will arise—how do you definitely find out exactly what is sinful and to what degree, so as to know clearly and distinctly if one has sinned, and how frequently, and to critically examine one's life like a strict and unhypocritical judge?
Bishop Theophan advises as follows:
To do this, put the law of God on one side and your own life on the other, and see where they are similar and where there is no resemblance. Take your deeds and subject them to the law to see if they are permissible, or take the law and see if it is applied in your life. So as not to omit anything in this important matter, you have to have an orderly system. Sit down and call to mind all your duties towards God, your neighbors, and yourself, and then go through your life in relation to all these. Or you may go through the ten commandments and the beatitudes, one after the other, and see if your life accords with them. Or read those parts of the Gospel of St. Matthew where the Savior sets out the strictly Christian law, and also the epistles of St. James and the epistles of St. Paul, especially to the Romans and Ephesians. Read all this and then check your own life, how it conforms. Or, finally, take the rite of Confession and check your own behavior against it. The result of such an examination of one's life is to reveal a vast number of deeds, words, thoughts, feelings and desires that were against the law but were permitted, even though they should not have been; a vast number that should have been done but were not, and many that were done in accordance with the law but turned out to be defiled by an impure motive. From all this you will gather a vast number, and even your whole life, perhaps, will be made up only of bad deeds.
Perhaps someone will say that all this is not necessary for all Christians, but only for the monastics. But no, this is for everyone! A person is a Christian not by calling, but by his way of life. All of us, not just monastics, have to think about and be concerned for our salvation. The law of the Gospel is given for everyone.
In answer to the question, how must a Christian live, how must we act and behave? the Apostle Paul shows us. His words, directed to the Ephesians, are also addressed to us:
Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; and walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given Himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savor. But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient but rather giving of thanks. For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolator, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience. Be not ye therefore partakers with them. For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light: (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness and righteousness and truth;) proving what is acceptable unto the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them. For it is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret. But all things that are reproved are made manifest by the light: for whatsoever cloth make manifest is light. Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light. See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is. And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess but be filled with the Spirit; speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God (Ephesians 5:1-21).
We have to become interested in the holy . . . Faith, we must study it and live in accordance with it. We must take care concerning our salvation. We will do this if we read holy Scripture, if we study the law of God, if we pray morning and evening and at all times, if we fast, if we carry out God's commandments and the Church's commandments.
In addition to this, we have to acquire Christian virtues—love, joy, peace, long-suffering, generosity, mercy, faith, meekness, abstinence, etc. We have to go to church, attend divine services, be cleansed of our sins and be sanctified through the holy Mysteries which are given by the holy Church for our salvation.
Thus we see that in accordance with Scripture, in accordance with the teachings of the Church and the holy fathers, we must struggle in order to go by the [Christian] path to salvation. The holy apostles taught their disciples and instruct us as well: "We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22). The Lord also says to us: "Enter ye in at the straight gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat" (Matt. 7:13,14).
No doubt many of you will say or think: "There they go, they want us to live like monks or hermits. But look at our friends and acquaintances, and everyone around us, they live for their own pleasure, do what they want, and none of them ever think about what is being said here. They do not think about the heavenly kingdom, the future life; they do not spoil their mood by such considerations."
Yes, it's true—they live and pay no attention to the spiritual life. They do not believe in that or in the future life. Therefore there is nothing spiritual in them, they have no peace of soul, or spiritual joy. So they have no restraining center, nothing has any moral or spiritual value for which they might restrain themselves, or for which they might strive. Therefore they are connected with debauchery and lasciviousness, crime, spiritual suicide, and spiritual bankruptcy.
Christianity is an ascetic religion, Christianity is a teaching about the gradual extirpation of the passions, about the means and conditions of the gradual acquisition of virtues; these conditions are internal, consisting of podvig, and given from without, consisting of our dogmatic beliefs and grace-giving sacraments which have only one purpose: to heal human sinfulness and lead us to perfection.”