St. Barnabas Orthodox Church (AOC) in Costa Mesa, California, presents a new once-monthly continuing education and catechism based on the practical, spiritual, and theological principles of the Orthodox Church. The classes began on June 7, 2014, and will continue through December 6, 2014. Speakers include Fr. Michael Reagan, Dr. Jeannie Constantinou, Abbess Mother Victoria, Fr. Josiah Trenham, Fr. Wayne Wilson, Scot Larsen, and Kevin Allen.
Thanks for coming today. Our topic this morning is Orthodox Ascetiscism and its purpose in our Christian lives. My talk will be about 45-50 minutes, not a full hour, but we’ll be covering a lot of ground this morning, so stick with me! By the way, I have a handout for all the quotes and references I will make; as well as a separate hand out of the ‘passions’ and their antiodotes according to the Church Fathers.
Asceticism is an integral part of the Orthodox Christian life. In fact, it is a distinguishing element from most Christian faith traditions, from which asceticism is essentially absent. But, as with any institutionalized practice, or tradition of long-standing, asceticism can become, or be perceived as, “legalism”, or mere custom and convention – especially if we as Orthodox Christians are not really clear as to its role and purpose in our lives. You know: “Oh, Orthodoxy’s great, but we have to do all this stuff I don’t really see the point of…” etc.!). I must confess that I have personally struggled with understanding the purpose of asceticism, which is one of the reasons I was enthusiastic about researching this!
So my opening question is—why do we as Orthodox Christians have various ascetical practices such as fasting, vigils, morning and evening prayers, almsgiving, obedience to a spiritual father, regular confession, taming of our thoughts and passions, etc? Are these just old customs that somehow grew up through the centuries and just stuck? Or is there something deeper involved?
Given our time, culture, and the Christian denominations and movements (that) many of us come from, asceticism is often a difficult part of our faith to really understand. (This) General confusion about the purpose of asceticism is articulated well by Klaus Kenneth, author of the book “Born to Hate/Reborn to Love” when he writes: “People who are attached to whatever they enjoy in their current life…have difficulty accepting the idea that they need to sacrifice anything for the sake of eternal life”.
[Well] As I have begun studying Orthodoxy and asceticism, I find several reasons for the difficulty in comprehending the ascetic teachings of the Orthodox Christian faith, which perhaps some of you may share.
First, we are Americans! We’re not exactly an “ascetic” people! Contemporary American culture (and cultures like Western Europe) stands in stark contrast to the self-restrained, ascetic life. In truth, our secular, cultural life has become one where comfort and desire of wealth and possessions, appears to be the goal and purpose of existence. And, this is turning us into a hedonistic and narcissistic-oriented people, where the pursuit of and devotion to pleasure – especially to the pleasures of the senses – and to the self is paramount.
This is obviously quite the opposite of the roadmap Our Lord and the Church lays out for us, guiding us through the “narrow gate” and into the life beyond the physical and sensual realm.
Second, and related to point one; asceticism has acquired a negative connotation! It is equated with a holding back, a giving up of what one wants, of what is comfortable, even what is seen as being fulfilling or necessary. As a contemporary theologian explains: “This is because the sinful tendencies of our nature, the habitual things that lead to its death, have come to be considered the positive side of life.”
But to the contrary, the Church Fathers teach that asceticism is not negative; rather, it has a positive purpose and function: it is medicinal; it fortifies our nature against the spiritual termites that gnaw at its foundation. In the place of the passions (which we will talk about), asceticism redirects our energies to the virtues, which presupposes a strengthened and restored nature. So asceticism is seen by the holy fathers and the church as reparative, curative and spiritually therapeutic. Metropolitan Hierotheos of Vlachos tells us that “the true Church’s existence is demonstrated by its success in curing man.”
Third, many of us who come out of Protestant and evangelical Christian traditions were taught a distorted view of the relationship between salvation and ascetic struggle. Protestant and evangelical traditions have rejected many of the classic Christian spiritual disciplines as “works righteousness”, some – especially Calvinists – even accusing these classic disciplines as being a form of the heresy of Pelagnianism. And, perhaps we have been more influenced by this Protestant-Evangelical model of salvation in our thinking than we are aware of, or are willing to admit!
This is very important to understand; so I am going to briefly digress to summarize the differing views of “salvation” before we get back to asceticism proper. I don’t think we can really understand the Lord’s, or the Church’s, ascetic teachings without understanding the Orthodox Christian view of salvation. So we’ll take a brief detour, but we’ll get back to the main topic!
Salvation in Western Christianity is characterized – as you all know – by theological premises like “irresistible grace” (I.E., Augustine and Calvin) and “justification by faith alone”, based on Luther’s interpretations of the writings of St Paul. According to these models, any “works” —even spiritual work—associated with salvation contradict the free nature of grace and the free gift of salvation. But, Fr George Florovsky [whom I will be quoting a bit] reminds us, “…St. Paul clearly distinguishes between the “works” of the Judaic law and the “works” of the Holy Spirit required of all Christians…it is significant that the early Church never confused them, for they understood what St. Paul wrote.”
The Protestant view of salvation (then) essentially teaches an extrinsic (IE. outside) justification or salvation, where man’s status (his human ontology) not his actual nature, is affected by justification. Therefore, “sanctification” – according to most schools of Reformed and Protestant theology – is not, and cannot be, a pre-condition, or even a necessary condition, for man’s salvation.
Here’s an (in)famous quote from Martin Luther, which I think dramatically distinguishes most Reformation teaching from that of the Church Fathers:
“Be a sinner, then, and sin bravely, but believe more bravely still and rejoice in Christ, who is Victor over sin, death, and the world….. No sin shall wrest us from Him, were we even in one day to commit fornication and manslaughter a thousand times…”
Father George Florovsky emphasizes that this model of extrinsic justification and salvation is one that is “totally independent from any inner change within the depths of the spiritual life of a person”. And, therefore, it is very different from the Orthodox Tradition’s teaching!
Eastern Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, teaches that salvation is not extrinsic justification by faith alone; and, the struggle for Christian perfection is much more than that acquired in an instant by mere faith, as taught by John Wesley!
As Romanian theologian Dimitru Staniloae explains, “Orthodox spirituality aims at the perfection of the faithful in Christ. This perfection is rather a mystical union with God through participation in His divine-human life, and Christian perfection requires a whole series of efforts until it is attained.”
This striving for Christian perfection is totally consistent with the Bible, where we read the words of Our Lord like: “…the kingdom of heaven suffers violence and the violent take it by force” (Matt. 11:12); and Saint Paul, who counsels us to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12); and the apostles, who taught in Acts (14:22), that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” If relentless and serious individual effort – and spiritual warfare – is not required to attain salvation, what do these scriptural texts mean?
Another Orthodox theologian writes, “This is how salvation is understood in the tradition of the Orthodox Church; not in merely moral or ethical terms, but as the attainment of Christ-like perfection. This is the purpose of our human existence – to become by divine grace what Christ is by nature.”
Salvation or “theosis”, as taught by the Church Fathers, is union with God, not merely extrinsic justification by faith. We read this in 1st Corinthians: “…he who is joined to the Lord ‘becomes one spirit with him’”.
We also see biblical confirmation of this in the verse that is most often cited as biblical evidence for the Orthodox theological teaching of “theosis”: 2nd Peter, Chapter One, verse 4. There we are exhorted to “become partakers of the divine nature”. But here’s the follow-up to this text in 2nd Peter: We become partakers of the divine nature only after “having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.”
Another way to say this is – one cannot become a partaker of the divine nature if one has not escaped the corruption that is in the world through sinful desire! As one contemporary writer explains: “In this sense, ‘the world’ means all those things that are opposed to Christ and to our salvation.”
St Mark the Poor explains the theology of theosis or deification this way:
“The (possibility of) union of man with God, or deification…is due to the preexisting union between divinity and humanity in the incarnation. It is Christ then, who has set it before us as an aim. Union here includes all the gratuitous means of grace – baptism, Holy Communion, and perpetual repentance. Union also includes struggles such as fasting, chastity, bridling of tongue and mind. It involves constant prayer as well as acts of love and humility. It certainly includes God’s invisible succor to those who strive to reach him.”
St Paul tips us off to this spiritual state of union when he says of himself: “…it is no longer I that live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20). St Paul achieved the radical renunciation of a self-willed, ego-driven and self-centered life. This is the ultimate purpose and aim of the ascetic life: the ultimate emptying of the false and egoic self (Gr.: kenosis) and its “passions” to attract and make room for the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. This is why the ascetic struggle is a never-ending one because, as Elder Sophrony one of our great contemporary elders, said, “sooner or later the ‘old self’ will return in full force…”
So from these explanations and examples, we can see that asceticism is a participatory work of inner and outer struggle for virtue, in place of the passions; it is the cooperation or synergy of the will – which we acknowledge is bent, with a predisposition to sin, but not totally depraved – and accompanied by the grace of God. It is not merely the following of moral and ethical rules (in an external “imitation of Christ”); or, simply adhering to man-made regulations or ancient religious customs or traditions.
The ascetic disciplines are also referred to in Scripture and Holy Tradition as a “death” – a gradual death with Christ, and an extension of the death of baptism. In the Epistle to the Romans we read this very clearly: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” We are not only raised with Christ, but we must also die with Him, and not only figuratively or symbolically. Death here refers to the death of the fallen self (ego), its passions and attachments. As an Australian monk on Mount Athos told us: “We came here to ‘die’ so that when we die, we won’t die”! I have thought a lot about that over the years, wondering “how do we ‘die’ before we die?”
Despite what many Western Protestant and evangelical Christian traditions teach, salvation is not as easy as just “accepting Jesus into our heart…” In fact, the contemporary Elder Sophrony of Sussex said to one of his spiritual children “…in this world there is nothing more difficult than to be saved.”
Why is salvation so difficult, we might ask?
(Well) This question itself, I think, is derived in part from the baggage we carry with us from Christian traditions where grace has been substantially reduced in value. Lutheran pastor and martyr of the Nazi era, Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls this reductionist, theological idea “cheap grace”—a divine grace that is taught merely as a doctrine, a principle, a system, but one that doesn’t cost us anything personally. The Orthodox Church teaches, on the contrary, that grace IS costly; that discipleship IS costly; it’s not merely a doctrine to be assented to intellectually; and then everything Christ accomplished through His Incarnation, Atonement and glorious Ascension, is automatically imputed to us. In fact, Fr G. Florovsky calls this a “spiritual fiction” which we must expunge from our thinking if we are to be truly “Orthodox” in our understanding of salvation.
Fr George further explains the participatory role of man in the process of theosis:
“God has freely willed a synergistic path-of-redemption in which man must spiritually participate. God is the actor, the cause, the initiator, the one who completes all redemptive activity. But man is the one who must spiritually respond to the free gift of grace. And in this response there is an authentic place for the spirituality of…asceticism, one which has absolutely nothing to do with the “works of the law,” or with the system of merit and indulgences.”
Dimitru Staniloae adds: “This union is realized by the working of the Holy Spirit, but until it is reached man is involved in a prolonged effort of purification….Man contributes by opening himself up receptively to an ever-greater filling with the life of God”.
Let me repeat that last sentence, because it’s so important: “Man contributes by opening himself up receptively to an ever-greater filling with the life of God”.
So, while the holy fathers teach that salvation begins and ends with God, each individual must participate in thought, word and action; and this is not only for monks and nuns.
St John Chrysostom wrote, “You greatly delude yourself and make a grave error, if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk;…For all must rise to the same height; and what has turned the world upside down is that we think only the monk must live rigorously, while the rest of us are permitted to live a life of indulgence.”
So, the Church through the Holy Scriptures, her theology, liturgy, prayers, hymns, penances, and sacraments calls and guides all of us out of this perishing world, with its enslavement to the self, flesh, appetites and passions, to the everlasting kingdom. This is why Elder Sophrony says salvation is hard to obtain and why the Church “hurts”.
It’s also important to keep in mind in this discussion that, according to the holy fathers, salvation or “perfection” is not a “one-size-fits-all” proposition. That is, the fathers teach that God will judge and reward each of us according to our illumination and sanctification; and (yes) the works done in the body contribute to this; not by the merit of the deeds themselves, but from the effect they have on the soul. The common understanding of salvation today has been greatly diminished; it is often taught to merely mean “admission into Heaven”; that is, the mere escaping of damnation; and, a sort of “one-size-fits-all” salvation or justification.
However, St John Chrysostom writes: “…do not, because you hear of a resurrection, imagine that all enjoy the same benefits.” …and…“all shall not enjoy the same reward; and though all sinners be in hell, all shall not endure the same punishment.”
St Symeon the New Theologian expands on this; “…according to the measure which each has of the radiance and vision of the light, both the knowledge and vision of God…(he) shall grow ever and more clear in joy inexpressible and rejoicing forever and ever.”
So, in ways that go beyond our reasoning or theological formulas, our salvation is directly connected to our spiritual state, purity of heart, holiness and the good deeds we do in this life (as well, of course, preeminently of God’s grace and mercy), contrary to much of what we hear in much of Christianity today.
Throughout my study of asceticism, I also realized that I have carried with me a somewhat pagan, or Platonic-like view of the nature of the “soul”; [that is] thinking that it is a pure, pristine, already-perfected spiritual center where God always dwells, separate from and untouched by the corruption of the flesh. Just a word or two on that!
In reality, this is not the way the Orthodox Holy fathers understand the nature of the soul. In patristic thought, the human being is spirit/soul/body. Broken down into functioning parts (although they work together) human nature is composed this way: the life of the body consists in satisfying the instinctual physical needs – essentially those of self-preservation (food, sleep and so on) and reproduction. The eternal soul is given by God as the life-giving force of the body in order for the body to function. And, the spirit is the force in us which proceeds from God, knows God, seeks after God and finds its rest only in Him.
The soul’s varied actions and movements are further broken down into three sub-categories: thoughts, feelings and desires. The soul and body are intimately connected. The soul, by means of the sensory organs, conveys impressions to the soul and the soul, depending on its impressions and how its responds to them, directs the body, controlling its activity to sin, or good. The fathers teach (esp. St Theophan the Recluse) that the soul has a higher and lower aspect and potential, and the soul can thus be elevated or depraved because it is mutable.
As St Gregory of Nyssa writes, “…through the faculty of perception our soul becomes associated also with the traits which are joined with perception. These are the traits which, when they occur, are called the passions.”
This is a very important point to understand! The soul, although lower than the spirit, occupies the main place in human life. (And) The soul is not immune from corruption! Far from it!
The purpose of human life is thus the striving of the human spirit towards God. Anything less – the Church Fathers teach – is to become like an animal, a soulless body, and thus to pronounce a death sentence upon oneself. As St Paul wrote in his Epistle to the Galations: “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” So we see a definite tension – even warfare – laid out before us in the Scriptures, between the flesh – carnality and all its forms – and the Spirit. This is our constant battle.
Anna Karenina; Leo Tolstoy; explains this tension very poetically: “He felt that beside the blessed spiritual force controlling his soul, there was another, a brutal force, as powerful, or more powerful, which controlled his life, and that this force would not allow him that humble peace he longed for”.
So that’s a prelude to the main topic which I will now turn back to—Asceticism and its purpose.
First, what does the word ascetic mean? (Well) In Greek the word “askesis” means spiritual training. We all understand the scientific connection between physical training, health, well-being and physical longevity. Likewise, Holy Scripture and the Church Fathers – as physicians of the soul – teach that spiritual training is equally necessary for the health of the soul!
In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 we see the connection between our salvation and spiritual work communicated clearly by St Paul, although he does not use the word asceticism per se (the terms ascetic and asceticism were later introduced by Clement of Alexandria and Origen)
St Paul writes: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
Here we see asceticism or spiritual training equated with (1) self-control and (2) an athletic – of course with God’s grace – striving for the imperishable – namely our salvation! Through spiritual exercise and self-restraint of the soul and body, we prepare the soul for the future life. Because, as we are taught in Scripture “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Cor.15:50). (We’ll discuss the passions and their cure later!).
So what actually is the purpose of asceticism?
Dimitru Staniloae, the Romanian theologian gives an excellent definition. He writes:“The ultimate goal of asceticism is to free our nature, not only from the movement of sinful appetites, but also from the ideas that appear in the mind after the cleansing of the passions. This is…to gain its independence from created things, which have enslaved our nature by the passions, and to make it long more for God.”
Here’s another one by Archbishop Averky (Taushev) – “Asceticism is nothing other than a struggle with passions and exercise in virtues.”
So what are these “passions” that we often hear referred to in Orthodox literature and are told we must struggle against?
Well, the fathers – especially St Maximos the Confessor – teach there are natural passions, like appetite for food, enjoyment of food, sex, sleep, fear, and so on. They developed after the Fall to aid in our physical survival. Because of the Fall, however, these passions tend to dominate our soul and distract it from its true purpose. Without the constant direction and oversight of the spirit, soul and body can easily be turned away from their innate tendency towards the infinite, to the “the world” and its perishable objects. Thus, the holy fathers teach (that) “the passions” represent the corruption and misuse of our natural passions. They represent the animal (irrational) aspects of our nature, not our higher aspects.
Specifically, the (passions) were first defined and identified by Evagrius of Ponticus as: (1) gluttony, (2) lust or fornication, (3) avarice, (4) anger, (5) despair (6) sorrow or listlessness (IE. Lacking energy or disinclined to exert effort; lethargic), (7) vanity or self-esteem, and (8) pride (self-love).
They coincide with the seven capital sins: gluttony, debauchery, avarice, anger, envy, sloth, and pride. The passions, if not re-directed, thus influence and subordinate our soul to its baser tendencies; they produce a tearing and a disorder and consequently contribute to our true nature’s weakening.
Why does the Church and Holy Tradition tell us we must war against them?
Well, for one, the passionate state draws all of our psychological, mental and physical energies and powers toward the exterior and the material. St Gregory of Nyssa reminds us: “…if these faculties are not directed by reason, but if instead the passions rule over the power of the mind, our humanity is changed from intelligence and godlikeness to irrationality and mindlessness. We are (thus) turned into beasts by the forces of these passions.” He continues, “So if one should become completely carnal in his mind, devoting all the activity and energy of his soul to the will of the flesh, such a man, even when he gets out of the flesh, is not separated from its experiences…This makes the pangs [of death] more grievous, as their soul has become partly materialized from such an environment.”
So in Orthodox Christianity the sacramental and ascetic life is the Christian life; it stands in contrast with the life of the world; it is not just an extra – curricular activity for the pious or fanatical! Met Hierotheos Vlachos explains, “The cure and deification of man is achieved, on the one hand, by the sacramental life, and on the other hand, by the ascetic life which we live in the Church. We cannot understand the sacraments without asceticism in Christ, and we cannot live a real ascetic life without the sacraments of the Church” This explains the motivation of the great ascetic saints; and this should be our aim, to our ability.
In case anyone still does not see, understand, or believe what the Church and her Holy Tradition teaches about the need for actual, not forensic or “imputed” ‘purity of soul’ as a precondition for entrance into the kingdom, then please explain to me the possible meaning of the “parable of the banquet” taught to us by Our Lord Himself:
“But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen.”
The Fathers teach that because no corruption can enter the Kingdom of Heaven, if we carry these carnal and material passions, appetites and attachments in our soul to the next life, this is a serious problem, because our fallen human nature and its darkened passions are incompatible and alien to the presence of God by reason of sin, a legacy to which all human beings are prone.
(So) What is the source of the Ascetical Tradition of the Orthodox Faith?
In the Gospel of St. Matthew, our Lord initiated and commands us to practice almsgiving, prayer, fasting, humility, repentance, love of the poor, to develop righteousness and to strive for “perfection”. Nowhere, that I am aware of, in the Holy Scriptures or the pre-Reformation Christian Tradition does they teach that the virtues, or purity, are automatically imputed to us by faith alone! On the contrary, as our Fr Michael pointed out in one of his homilies, the only place in the Bible where faith alone is mentioned is in the Epistle of St James, and there it says faith alone, without works, is dead!
Our Lord could very easily have abolished ascetic practices and taught “faith alone” had that been His intention. But He did not. Neither did St. Paul! And in keeping with these traditional teachings, the Church’s liturgical calendar is built around these disciplines. Whether we take them seriously and practice them in our lives – and / or believe they are necessary for our salvation – is of course an individual decision.
So let’s get to the heart of this—what is the purpose of asceticism in the Christian life?
As we read in the Bible, we are called to “be holy as God is holy”. Our holiness is of course derived from God, through union with His created energies. We are taught, God is Light and Life itself and in God there is no darkness. And God is perfect love. This is the God through Whose energies we are to become partakers of!
So what does ascetic work, denial of oneself, and mortification of the flesh have to do with perfection?
One Orthodox theologian speaks of asceticism or mortification of the flesh as a “transfer of the energy of our nature (that) takes place in favor of the spirit…” I think this helps us understand the teaching of Our Lord when he tells us to “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” Our Lord is not talking about scoring heavenly brownie points!
We are created in God’s Image and Likeness. The inner “eye” of the heart or soul – which is called the nous or intellect (the higher aspect) – was originally clear, unstained and focused on God and not on self. The fathers teach that Adam and Eve were created sinless, but were not yet fully developed or perfected. They – and we – were created to grow into the Likeness of God. This potentiality was given to them in “seed” form, and the true human vocation – then and now – is to pursue God-likeness.
So while we acknowledge that our wills are tainted, bent, and we have a predisposition to sin—“I was born in iniquities and in sins did my Mother conceive me” as the Psalmist says—God opened the gates of paradise again by sending His Son to die on the Cross and to enter into death – the great enemy of man – to become the Second Adam – the entirely selfless Lover of Mankind, and through his life, teaching, passion, death, burial, resurrection, ascension and promised second coming – to accomplish the work of salvation. God offers this free gift of salvation to all who will receive it.
And, so asceticism is man’s response to God’s loving gift. The ascetic practices prescribed by the Great Physician and His Church are the spiritual medicines or antidotes that heal the passions, and the Church is the spiritual hospital where the cures are administered. Just to read, talk and think about a treatment for cancer is not the cure – submitting oneself to the actual therapy is the cure!
We can see the healing and cure in the saints (which is why we honor them) many of whom literally have acquired “clear vision” and can thus “see” things incomprehensible to most of us; who manifest remarkable charisms, and live as if in another dimension, with their focus on God and not on self and self-love. We see this is contemporary saints like St John the Wonder-Worker, St Porphyrios and St Paisios.
So, as mentioned, the corrupted “passions” in us are many and manifold and when we give ourselves over to them knowingly or unknowingly – as opposed to identifying them & struggling against them – we block the Holy Spirit in us. Struggle against the passions and for the virtues is like the receiver for the grace of God. The greater and more decisive these efforts are, the greater the grace-filled help they attract from God. The more forcefully we battle, the more intense the efforts of our will – the greater is the grace that he or she will receive from God.
The purpose of each ascetic effort – whether it be standing for long periods attentively in Church at services; vigils; keeping a daily rule of prayer; following the cycle of the Fasts and Feasts; giving alms; confession; receiving the sacraments, praying the Jesus Prayer; watchfulness/attentiveness over our myriad thoughts; restricting one’s willful desires; obedience to a discerning Spiritual Father or Elder; daily reading of the Scriptures; and being part of a larger spiritual community – is prescribed to purify our hearts (souls), so as to cure our spiritual blindness, to lead us out of our self love and to love of God and our fellow man.
(So) The ascetic work should not be seen primarily as a deprivation, but as a “cleansing” – a “transformation” – a “cure” – a “detox” – of our destructive passions.
Each passion - gluttony, fornication (thought and deed), avarice, sorrow, despair, (IE. Lacking energy or disinclined to exert effort; lethargic), vain-glory, and pride (self-love) – has its ascetic antidote in the therapeutic tradition of the Church! The specific application should come from a discerning spiritual father, but can also be applied by us. Because we do not want to become enslaved to the physical and psychological passions and carry them in our souls when we depart this life!
(So) Let’s do a brief review of the classic passions and their ascetic antidotes prescribed by the Holy Fathers (virtues).
1. Gluttony; gluttony is not only about how much we eat, but, as St John the Damascene says, about a “gluttonous soul or spirit”. Its antidote is moderation and regular times of fasting or abstinence in food and drink to restore balance between body and soul, between penitence and rejoicing and between us and the world around us.
2. Fornication (lust); on the basic level, chastity – its antidote – is control over one’s sexual impulses. Other antidotes are: godly marriage, and moderation in the bedroom (we are not given license to pursue every sexual practice and excess); fasting, at appointed times, from all sexual activity; attentiveness/watchfulness over one’s thoughts, and imaginations; and, as St John Climacus advises, contemplation of death and the Jesus Prayer.
3. Avarice (love of wealth); just as gluttony is the passion that distorts our definition of need in relation to food and drink, avarice is the passion that distorts our definition of need in relation to money and luxury. The main antidotes or cures to avarice are: nonacquisitiveness; alms giving and charitable giving. And again this is not only for the wealthy! As many Church Fathers have said to give from our poverty is more valuable in God’s eyes than to give from our abundance.
4. Anger; the Fathers teach that the root of the passion of anger is pride and conceit. We are not speaking of righteous indignation (anger at sin), but of anger that arises from wounded pride, of not getting what one thinks he or she deserves or needs. Meekness is the classic Christian antidote for anger. But there is a practical three-step solution for anger taught by St John Climacus (of the Ladder):
• Keep the lips silent when the heart is stirred (and the fingers off the keyboards on emails or facebook!)
• “Set a watch O Lord before my mouth, and a protecting door round about my lips…” as we chant every Vespers service
• Silence our thoughts when the soul is upset; that is, do not dwell on an offense or think badly of those who have wronged or wounded us
• Be calm when unclean winds are blowing; that is, do not to take offense, but remain dispassionate at insults or injuries to our pride.
5. Despondency/despair; Both dejection (low spirits) and despondency, and indeed all the passions, according to the Fathers, can be cured. In the case of despondency, unremitting prayer and the remembrance of God and the future life is the main antidote. Further, the Fathers counsel us to face our despondency, to endure it, and go through it with the knowledge that Christ is there every step-of-the-way with us. (Obviously, in extreme cases, medications and other therapies may be called for.) In the case of dejection (low spirits), the Fathers recommend detachment and dispassion towards created things.!
6. Sorrow, often (patristically) called lethargy (or listlessness); lethargy refers here to spiritual laziness. It’s a laziness to prayer, coming to Church services, reading of the Scriptures, following the daily prayer rule given to us by our spiritual father; indifference to what our spiritual father counsels or directs us to do! It’s “being down” spiritually and in other ways! What is the antidote to release us from the pit of indifference and spiritual sloth? St John of the Ladder suggests two things: thinking of our own sins and thinking of the eternal blessings that await the faithful. Daily reading of the Scriptures can also instill a desire in us for prayer!
7. Self-esteem, vanity, vainglory; According to the Holy Fathers this is the beginning of pride, and pride is what most of the Church Fathers call the beginning and end of all evil. The antidotes to vainglory are: humility; self awareness and honesty; honest and regular confession, regardless of what the father confessor will think; modesty in behavior and dress; thinking oneself more sinful – not less – than others; constant repentance; simplicity and a non-hypocritical mode of behavior – that is, not being one way with yourself and another way in the presence of others. And struggling for authentic humility!
8. Pride; St John of the Ladder writes of pride: “Pride begins where vainglory leaves off. Its midpoint comes with…the shameless parading of our achievements, complacency, and unwillingness to be found out. It ends with spurning of God’s help, the exalting of one’s own efforts and a devilish disposition”. According to Christian Tradition, pride was the sin that brought down the devil. Pride in its purest form is a rejection of God. The antidotes to pride – and there are many – are: meekness/simplicity, or cultivating a childlike innocence; humility, which St John of the Ladder says is “constant forgetfulness of one’s achievements…the admission that…one is the least important and is also the greatest sinner…that one is weak and helpless…contrition of soul…and the abdication of one’s will..”
So, in summary and conclusion, the purpose of asceticism is to reassert the proper order in our soul and body; to train the human person not to be attracted and dominated by transient, created things; but rather to put them into their proper perspective and context. and to prepare us therefore for entry into the heavenly kingdom.
I think a fitting close are two quotes from Holy Scripture that sum this discussion up succinctly:
“Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.”
“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”
I’ll end with a story about how this study has affected my thinking. After the Fast of the Dormition of the Nativity ended, Colleen and I broke the fast by going out to a Chinese restaurant for dinner. With the check, two fortune cookies were delivered with the bill. I opened mine and read: “You are going to have a very comfortable life”. Well, before I did this study, I would have been very pleased with that so-called “fortune”! But instead I thought, “I’m not so sure having a quote very comfortable life unquote is actually good for my soul!”