At the heart of “mainstream” Syriac tradition the ascetic mode of life renounced not the physical world, but a world gone awry. Celibacy or chastity in marriage; simplicity of food, clothing and possession; care for the poor, sick, and suffering – such were the requisite features of the Christian mode of life from Christianity’s inception. In earliest Syriac literature, the body of the true believer is a body rendered chaste, healed and holy in marriage to its Heavenly Bridegroom by living a Christian life.
In turn, the condition of the believer’s body must be mirrored in the community as a whole body. Caring for others, and especially for the suffering, not only fulfilled the command to love one another, but also forged into existence a community whose life as a healed and consecrated community literally reflected Paradise regained – the image by which Edessa recalled the experience of its conversion to Christianity.
“’Fasts and vigils, the study of Scripture, renouncing possessions and everything worldly are not in themselves perfection, as we have said; they are its tools. For perfection is not to be found in them; it is acquired through them. It is useless, therefore, to boast of our fasting, vigils, poverty, and reading of Scripture when we have not achieved the love of God and our fellow men. Whoever has achieved love has God within himself and his intellect is always with God.’” (St John Cassian, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 2490-94)
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
Orthodox asceticism always presents us with a serious challenge to our tendency to oversimplify religion. On the one hand, it seems to argue for nothing except absolute obedience to rules as THE way to follow Christ. On the other hand, it reveals that strict obedience not only is a vacuity but is spiritually dangerous for it deceives us about its purpose. As we continue on the spiritual sojourn of the Nativity Fast, we can think about the purpose of fasting and self-denial.
The same amma also said “it is neither spiritual discipline nor vigil nor diverse toil thatsaves us if there be not genuine humble-mindedness. For there was a solitary driving off demons and he used to examine them:
The spiritual victory over the demons does not occur in the desert, or in monasteries but in the humble of heart. As the demons honestly (!) answer – just like monks, they don’t eat, they don’t sleep, and they don’t live in luxurious cities with every cosmopolitan amenity [so those who think the city is the playground for demons might be surprised to learn the demons don’t live in the cities but in the deserts!]. It isn’t strict ascetical practice which defeats demons, but humility.
If asceticism simply means being obedient to rules of self-denial, then monks are simply behaving like demons. The real warfare for monks as for all Christians is to nurture and develop humility – a humble heart. For the demons neither have humility nor can they abide in the humble heart for that humble heart is the abode of God!
For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (Isaiah 57:15)
Lent, especially Christmas Lent, cannot be reduced to keeping strict rules of food fasting. For its goal is to prepare the humble heart in which the Lord Jesus can come and abide. What cleanses our heart is humility, which is the goal not only of Lent and asceticism but of the sacrament of confession as well.
“Every genuine confession humbles the soul. When it takes the form of thanksgiving, it teaches the soul that it has been delivered by the grace of God. When it takes the form of self-accusation, it teaches the soul that it is guilty of crimes through its own deliberate indolence.
Confession takes two forms. According to the one, we give thanks for blessings received; according to the other, we bring to light and examine what we have done wrong. We use the term confession both for the grateful appreciation of the blessings we have received through divine favor, and for the admission of the evil actions of which we are guilty. Both forms produce humility. For he who thanks God for blessings and he who examines himself for his offences are both humbled. The first judges himself unworthy of what he has been given; the second implores forgiveness for his sins.” (St. Maximos the Confessor, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 18272-80)
“Authentic asceticism used practices that deepened self-awareness. The desert ascetic understood that growth in self-awareness was a necessary and valued component of the spiritual journey. Self-awareness was pursued through ascetical practices in order to become more deeply united with God and closer to heaven.
As the ammas [the desert mothers] taught, inner hesitancy and resistance to meet God in honesty, silence, and solitude are related to our resistance to come to know ourselves in our frailties. An honest encounter with God challenges our capacity for intimacy. We may come to discover that we fear our passion for God. We may want to run from our sense of emptiness. Self-awareness calls us to face our hurt and anger. Above all else, self-awareness reveals our idols – those self-serving, false images of God that deny who God actually is.
…Apatheia is purity of heart. The ammas teach us to intentionally let go of all that keeps us from the single-minded pursuit of God: feelings and thoughts that bind us, cravings and additions that diminish our sense of worth, and attachments to self-imposed perfectionism.”
“The tradition of our Fathers and the authority of Scripture teaches us that there are three kinds of renouncements which each of us must work to carry out with all his strength. The first is to reject all the pleasures and all the riches of this world. This second is to renounce ourselves, our vices, our wicked habits, and all the unruly affections of the spirit and of the flesh; and the third is to withdraw our heart from all things present and visible and apply it only to the eternal and invisible. God teaches us to make these three renounements all at once by what He said to Abraham first of all. “Go out!” he told him, “from your country, from your kindred, from the house of your father; that is, leave the goods of this world and all the riches of the earth. Go out from your ordinary life and from the wicked and vicious inclinations which, attaching themselves to us by our birth and the corruption of flesh and blood, are as it were naturalized and become one thing with ourselves. Go out from the house of your father, that is, lose the memory of all the things of this world and of everything that presents itself to your eyes…”
We shall then arrive at this third renouncement when our spirit, no longer weighed down by the contagion of this animal and earthly body, but purified from the affections of the earth, is raised to heaven by continual meditation on divine things, and is so taken up with the contemplation of the eternal truth that it forgets that it is still enclosed in fragile flesh and, ravished in God, it will find itself so absorbed in His presence that it has no longer ears to hear or eyes to see and it cannot even be struck by the greatest and most perceptible objects.”
And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:2-3)
As we move through the second week of our Lenten sojourn, we are reminded that if we are not acting in love or if we are not growing in love than our Lenten discipline, no matter what heights of ascetical self-denial we attain, are in vain. The purpose of Lent is to control the passions and sin, not just to strictly change our diets. Among the sayings that come to us from desert monastics are the words of Amma Syncletica.
She also said, ‘As long as we are in the monastery, obedience is preferable to asceticism. The one teaches pride, the other humility.’ (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 234)
Asceticism can become a source of pride as we compare ourselves to how others are keeping or not keeping the food fast. Or, even as we compare how much better we are doing this year than last or this week than last week. Pride can set in, judgmentalism, gossip, bickering and backbiting. Or, on the other hand, envy and jeealousy, showmanship and hypocrisy.
Amma Syncletica thinks that obedience to an elder or a rule is even better because then there is no self pride, self vaunting, seeking attention or hyper-vigilance in watching what others are doing or keeping track of how much more I am doing than others. Obedience says, it doesn’t matter what others are doing or not doing, I have a rule which I am to keep and that is what I need to be mindful of. There is nothing to get proud about, or envious, or judgmental – we are simply doing our duty, doing what we were told to do.
“Will any one of you, who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep, say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and gird yourself and serve me, till I eat and drink; and afterward you shall eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'” (Luke 17:7-10)
“In a remarkable little book entitled Body of Death and of Glory, the French Orthodox theologian and historian, Olivier Clément, speaks of the fundamental reason for Christian asceticism.
Asceticism can only be understood in the perspective of the resurrected, liturgical body. Asceticism signifies the effort to strip away our masks, those neurotic identities that usurp our personal vocation. It is an effort based not on will-power, but on a ceaseless abandonment of oneself to grace…. Asceticism is the struggle, the self-abandonment of openness and faith, which allows the Spirit to transform the anonymous body of our species into a body of ‘language’ that expresses both the person and communion among persons. Thanks to this ascetic struggle, we are gradually transformed from an acquisitive body, that treats the world as its prey, into a body of celebration, that unites itself to the ecclesial liturgy and thereby to the cosmic liturgy.
The aim of the Church’s ascetic practices is to effect this change, a radical transformation of the person, from a body of death to a glorified body, a body of celebration.” (John Breck, Longing for God, p. 139)
“We are taught to fast regularly as part of our Christian discipline. Why should we fast? How do we serve God by going hungry? Surely we need adequate food each day in order to work hard in God’s service. Jesus criticized most vehemently those who drew attention to their fasting, urging us to fast in secret; so clearly fasting is not a matter for personal pride. There are two reasons to fast. The first is to break our attachment to material things, of which food is the most central, and so compel us to depend on spiritual things. When we are eating regularly, food not only sustains our bodies, but provides pleasure and satisfaction. In itself there is nothing wrong with such pleasure. But when we do without food, we are reminded that the only true and lasting source of joy is spiritual. The second is to express solidarity with those whose poverty forces them to go hungry. We may fast from time to time as a discipline; but many people fast continually because they have not money to buy food. If we are truly to show compassion to the poor, we must experience within our own bodies the consequences of poverty. Fasting is thus an incentive toward generosity. And the money saved during a fast can readily be given to relieve the enforced hunger of others.” (St. John Chrysostom, On Living Simply, p. 78)
St. Mark the Ascetic writes about sins that do overcome even good Christians and monks. These are the kinds of sins we might commit daily, sins we assume everyone commits, sins which are part of human nature. They are sins nevertheless from which we are to repent and to replace them with Christian virtues. They are sins from which we are to abstain, especially during Great Lent. St. Mark laments that:
“They were secretly enticed and overcome by
malicious envy, by jealousy that hates everything good,
by strife, quarreling, hatred, anger,
bitterness, rancor, hypocrisy,
wrath, pride, self-esteem,
love of popularity, self-satisfaction,
by sensual desire which provokes images of self-indulgence,
by unbelief, irreverence, cowardice,
dejection, contentiousness, sluggishness, sleep,
presumption, self-justification, pomposity,
boastfulness, insatiateness, profligacy,
greed, by despair which is the most dangerous of all,
St. John of Kronstadt writes that we can take Great Lent seriously while rejoicing in our Christian way of life if we remind ourselves that the world is our temporary home, not the only life we will know. If we think the world is all there is we cling to it and try to drain every drop of life out of every little thing. When we truly believe in God’s Kingdom, we realize life on earth is only a tiny portion of all that exists, and that life is very short compared to the eternity in the afterlife. His thoughts are a good mediation as we honor St. Mary of Egypt on the 5th Sunday of Great Lent.
“The material objects to which we attach ourselves in our hearts, which we passionately desire or grudge others, kill the soul by withdrawing it from God, the Source of life. The heart out to be always in God, Who is the inexhaustible Source of spiritual and material life: for who is the author of the existence of all creatures, and of organic, vegetable and animal life, of the existence, order and life of all worlds, both great and small? The Lord God. We must look upon everything material as dross, as unimportant, as nothingness, as transitory, destructible, corruptible, and evanescent, and pay attention to the invisible, single immortal soul which cannot be destroyed: “To despise the flesh, for it passeth away, and to take care for the soul, the thing immortal.” [*Hymn for St. Mary of Egypt – see below] Prove this by your deeds: fast, gladly bestow charity upon the poor, entertain guests heartily; do not grudge anything to those who belong to your household, zealously read the Word of God, pray, repent, lament your sins, strive with all your might after holiness, meekness, humility, patience and obedience.” (My Life in Christ, pp. 175-176)
The image of God was truly preserved in you, O Mother, for you took up the Cross and followed Christ. By so doing, you taught us to disregard the flesh, for it passes away; but to care instead for the soul, since it is immortal. Therefore your spirit, O Holy Mother Mary, rejoices with the angels.