THE TERM ‘ASCETICAL theology’ seems to have disappeared and with it a concern for the disciplined ascesis that must undergird the living of the Christian life. One wonders whether this particular loss is the root cause of the moral confusion in which the Church of England finds itself. F. P. Harton’s, The Elements of the Spiritual Life, reprinted in 1957, was perhaps the last published Anglican work on ascetical theology.
‘Spirituality’, a modern word, is the popular term used to describe contemporary preoccupations with what is often termed ‘finding a spiritual life’, and with it has come an interest in Celtic Spirituality, Bendictine Spirituality, Carmelite Spirituality, Franciscan Spirituality et al. The undiscerning see these as entities in themselves and search within them for parallels to our own age. To the more discerning these commendable and authentic styles of Christian living are not ‘spiritualities’ in themselves, but different ways of living out the only spirituality the Church has, that is Christian Spirituality. Often the self-regarding aim and objective of this search for ‘a spiritual life’ is the acquiring of a measurable ‘feel good factor’ of renewal, and a ‘getting friendly with your emotions’ through a self-contained activity with its series of ‘spiritual techniques’. Its term of reference has often been the world rather than the Kingdom in the search for relevance. It has thrown up Guru’s galore.
One is not denigrating the contemporary interest in things ‘mystical’ and the genuine spiritual thirst and hunger for a life of prayer, but merely flagging a warning about self-appointed Guru’s who would exploit this present climate of interest and lead people into spiritual cul-de-sacs. In a time of New Age influences, Yoga and relaxation classes, the danger of confusing syncretisms happening in ‘technique-centred’ courses becomes real. Too often when people are excused for their self-indulgent misbehaviour by describing them as only being human, it is a diminished view of being human that is implied, a humanity without the deifying effects of life in Christ. There is behind this attitude an underlying expectation that such misbehaviour is necessary to the finding of human fulfilment. With an emphasis on escaping from the unbearable tensions, dangers and sufferings of ‘the world of action’, true Christian living can be by-passed and the resultant ‘spirituality’ is no more than a dead pietism that wants to escape the facing of the true self and the world.
Such confusions give the word ‘spirituality’ an ambiguous use today so that like the Orthodox theologian Schmemann I prefer using the term Christian life. Life in Christian prayer, is nourished by the Word and Sacraments of the Church where we enter more deeply into the deified humanity of Christ by the Spirit who dwells in us. It is not an escape into another life, a spiritual world, but living the life God has given us, renewed, transformed and transfigured by the Holy Spirit, that we may grow to a Christic dimension of humanity responsible for the whole creation. Here the means and the end of Christian life, is the new nature that makes the Christian completely human. With the Ascension the living and life-giving presence of Christ was made available in all places and all times. So the Christian is a temple of the Holy Spirit that flows from the Father through the Son into his creation. Far from delivering us from the stresses and tensions, dangers and sufferings of this present world it immerses us in them, that through the paschal mystery in which we are caught up they might be redeemed as we live with Christ in the Father through the Holy Spirit In the many situations and circumstances where the Christian can penetrate, such as marriage and family life, through the special skills of one’s daily work in industry, commerce, agriculture, teaching, law or medicine, the deifying effects of God’s presence are brought to bear on his creation by the spirit in which life is lived and the disciplines peculiar to each job and situation are responded to. Thus the Christian’s lifestyle is the manner in which lay theology is written.
The underlying principle of the Christian life is not just a matter of continuous prayer. There is need for, to use the technical word, Ascesis or Asceticism which literally means training. What the Desert Fathers have to say about this is found in Cassian’s XIVth Conference on Spiritual Knowledge and the father with whom he confers is Abbot Nesteros. Here the abbot tells us that Spiritual Knowledge is twofold, – viz. First practical, brought about by an improvement of morals and purification from faults and Secondly, theoretical or contemplative, consisting in the contemplation of the things of God and the knowledge of most sacred thoughts.
Anyone who wishes to arrive at the deep knowledge of the things of God and insight must pursue first with all might and main the improvement of morals and purification of virtues. The practical knowledge can be won without the contemplative, but the contemplative cannot possibly be won without the practical. In other words it is a waste of time for anyone to expect to attain to the vision of God who does not shun every stain of sin. It is the pure in heart and they alone who shall see God.
This practical perfection depends on two things. First, a person must know the nature of his or her faults and the cure for them. Next, he or she must find out the order of the virtues and form his or her character by striving for perfection in them. If we have not understood the nature of our faults or tried to eradicate them, we cannot hope to gain that understanding of the virtues which is the second stage of our practical training or that insight into heavenly things which is that contemplative knowledge.
This practical training is what we call ascesis. It means the voluntary denial of things, even if good in themselves for the sake of a greater union with God. The Desert Fathers were called ascetics because they led an ascetic life. It witnesses to the fact that there can be no authentic Christianity without self-denial. The call to repentance in the Gospel implies an ascetic self-denial that is intimately tied up with sin and its roots in us, and our union with God.
Is this outmoded today?
The Second Vatican Council claims that the asceticism practiced by these monks is not outmoded:
Spiritual life is not solely enclosed within participation in the liturgy … St. Paul exhorts us to bear Jesus’s mortification in our body so that the life of Jesus may be manifest in our mortal body. ‘Through prayer, example and the efforts of penance, the ecclesial community exercises a true motherhood in order to lead souls to Christ.’
Read the Acts of the Apostles where the sending of some members in mission is preceded by prayer and fasting done by everyone.
Pope Paul VI said “A Christian life without a spirit of asceticism cannot maintain itself and persevere in fruitful spiritual richness and as an apostolic testimony.”
The Collects in the ASB for Lent remind us of the need for ascetical endeavour. Ash Wednesday prays that God may … create in us new and contrite hearts, that, lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, we may receive from you, the God of all mercy, perfect forgiveness and peace, but note, not before acknowledging the nature of our faults and the cure of them. It continues on Lent I, where in the spirit of Jesus fasting in the wilderness we pray … give us grace to discipline ourselves in obedience to your Spirit; and as you know our weakness so may we know your power to save … . Lent 2, continues this same spirit of prayer … grant your people grace to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and with pure hearts and minds to follow you, the only God; but Lent 3 tells us that if we are to follow God it must be the same way as Jesus, who …went not up to joy before he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified; mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the Cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace…
The Ascetical or Practical Life
Ascetical or practical life is not just for monks. Such people can help us grasp something of the spirit and principle of the spiritual life, which is precisely what Cassian grasped from the Desert Fathers. There is no need to live the same kind of life. It can be lived out in varying circumstances among different interests and professions. We must reach perfection in whatever state of life we find ourselves in and to which God calls us, with the grace received. There are many different ways by which people draw nearer to God, but within each way a person must try to grasp this practical or moral discipline without which the contemplative purity necessary to see God will not be attained.
“If any man do His will, he shall know of the doctrine”, is the heart of Our Lord’s teaching. Cassian, stressed the fact that any form of Christian life may provide the exercises necessary to the practice of the Christian virtues. It is possible within the ordinary and commonplace, the daily round and common task. In his hymn Teach Me My God and King, George Herbert wrote that it is the presence of God who “makes drudgery divine”.
If you think this is all negative, let me remind you that all life has an element of self-denial and that everyone, believer or unbeliever discovers this. Life would be impossible if we did not acknowledge certain restraints or acts of self-denial. Otherwise we would be slaves to all the instinctual compulsions and whims that blow upon us, and become anti-social without some self-restraint. Today’s emphasis on restricting our eating and drinking is to safeguard health, so too is the abandoning of smoking. Similarly, we bite our tongues to save a friendship or safeguard our job. This natural asceticism is part of everyone’s life and demonstrates that it is the giving up of something of value to oneself only to acquire something better.
Asceticism is therefore, never an end in itself, otherwise it would be a purely negative attitude to life. It is always a means to an end. Christian asceticism while the same in principle to natural asceticism is put into practice for a different reason. It is in order to detach ourselves from, or forsake all that we have, because, if not, you cannot be my disciple. Like those preparing for the London Marathon, their disciplined training detaches them from over-eating and drinking the wrong substances, and produces a fit body and a healthy cardio-vascular system. It is all just a means to an end – so that on the day while they may not win the race, they will finish the course with dignity and expertise.
Our disciplined training is so that we can run the race of the Christian disciple and as the athlete cannot treat his body with contempt, neither does the Christian athlete. We are not to kill our humanity but merely enable the human to grow with and alongside the spiritual that the whole of ourselves, body, mind and spirit might be transfigured in the life we are living with Christ in the Holy Spirit. Like the Desert Fathers who were soaked in the Bible, we must acknowledge that everything God made is good. However, everything, as the Bible reminds us, has fallen into anarchy because of sin. Our concern must be to re-establish some order in our faculties. As in athletic discipline the body is restored to fitness, so through spiritual discipline the body is transformed under the influence of the Holy Spirit. To be a disciple means to take up the Cross given in Baptism and follow Christ and the ascetical discipline is to enable the new life received in Baptism to be fully developed. In this way our whole being is transfigured into the image of the Risen Christ. As the athlete has liberated his body for the marathon so the Christian disciple discovers that the ascetic discipline liberates the whole being in the deepest sense of the word.
It has a purifying effect as it reaches down into the root of our chaotic and disarrayed faculties to attack the self-love, pride and selfishness, enabling the divine charity to overcome these evil influences in us. St. Isaac the Syrian used to say “Love all mortification and your passions will be put down.” In his First Conference with Abbot Moses Cassian records Moses saying that the first thing in all the arts and sciences is to have some goal, a mark for the mind and constant mental purpose because unless a person keeps this before him with all diligence and persistence, he will never succeed in arriving at the ultimate aim and find what he desires. Similarly, the farmer must plan to keep his field free from brambles and weeds (ascetic effort), while his crops are growing and the weeded soil (purity of heart), will produce an abundant harvest (the life of union with God).
In his conference with the Abbot Paphnutius Cassian describes the relationship between three books of Scripture and self-renunciation. There are three sorts of renunciation Paphnutius told Cassian. The first, concerns our detachment from the bodily or material things of this life, the wealth and goods of this world. God called Abraham to do just this and leave his own country. The second kind of detachment necessary in the way of perfection is from kinsfolk. Paphnutius sees this as renunciation from one’s former life and habits and sins which cling to us from our very birth by ties of affinity and kinship. The third renunciation for those in Christ is not to regard the things that are seen but the things that are not seen as of eternal value. When this is done our words and actions witness to the fact that, in the words of the apostle “our conversation is in heaven”. Paphnutius links these three renunciations to three books of Scripture. Proverbs teaches us how to live an honest life and see the transitoriness of earthly things. Ecclesiastes speaks of vanity, or as we would say, the inadequacy of everything that makes up the present life. Finally, the The Song of Songs demonstrates a soul purified and united to the Word of God already contemplating the realities of heaven.
Arthur Middleton is Rector of Boldon in the Diocese of Durham and Tutor at St. Chad’s College.
His second book The Peculiar Character of Anglicanism, is published by the Prayer Book Society and available from Faith House. ISBN 0-85191-230-3 £2.95.