On the Merits of Asceticism

Today is the first Sunday of the month when we share guest posts from people living and teaching the Contemplative and/or Celtic Christian way around the world. One of the beautiful things about the internet is that people doing amazing things in isolated parts of the world can learn from one another and grow together. We hope this article inspires you to dive a little deeper into what it means to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors while looking forward to what kind of world we will leave for our grandchildren. This article will kick off a four part series on asceticism and was written by Jory Pryor.

Jory (he/him) is an inter-spiritual contemplative, grounded in the Christian tradition, while also drawing from the esoteric traditions of Buddhism, Sufism, and Advaita Vedanta. He hosts a podcast called Methods, which showcases various techniques for prayer, meditation, and contemplation from across all spiritual paths. Learn a little more about Jory’s work HERE.

Asceticism, the severe self-discipline and avoidance of all forms of indulgence, can sound archaic, baroque, and gaudy: remnant from times long past. After all, it’s what ancient monks and religious zealots did to appease a vindictive and capricious idea of God, right? It can even seem inhumane, unhealthy, or barbaric to some modern minds, and often can be. Why would we want to withhold pleasure from ourselves?

The conception of what constitutes ascetism has surely changed with time and culture and now seems to have reverted back to a primitive sort of purity code. In the modern age, we witness the rise of the “moral majority” on the right of the political spectrum. This majority is composed of the colloquial habits formed from a culture looking nostalgically backwards to a type of innocence.

You may know these “morals” as restrictive boundaries put on generations of youth to abstain from sex (even dating) until marriage, a ban on cigarettes, tattoos, or an indefinite moratorium on alcohol. Though, the very concept of prohibition itself is flimsy as a method of behavioral modification because, as the philosopher Peter Rollins quips, “The object-cause of desire, is that which enflames desire.” In other words, if you bring distance or barrier between an object and a subject, you actually create desire by that prohibition, not destroy it. 

However, these spiritual giants of old weren’t completely deluding themselves in valuing restraint as a form of virtue. There was reasoning behind why they engaged in these practices and it spans both time and culture. What if Christendom has taken something once purifying and edifying and misinterpreted it to serve social group belonging dynamics? What if we have lost the transformative core of asceticism through the flux of time and poor exegesis?

In the early church

Let’s go back to where the practice began, at least in the western world. The term asceticism originally comes from the Greek askêsis, referring to intense physical training like that of an athlete. In the early Patristic period of the Church, followers took the word and associated it with practices of self-denial or mortification and preparation for a life of religious devotion. Denial of food, sex, sleep, and possessions was seen as initiation for contact with the Divine and can be found across cultures around the world. The ubiquity of these practices illustrates asceticism’s instrumental role as a means to an end rather than the goal itself.

In the Christian church, asceticism was associated with the first of the threefold path originally outlined by Origen in his commentary on the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. This threefold path later reached formulation as purgation, illumination, and union. The first of these stages, purgation, is essential to understanding the mystical root of Christianity.

The most rigorous programs for ascetics were connected with the monastic desert fathers in the fourth century, continuing on throughout the late medieval friars and beguines, into modern Christianity. But the modern church seems to solely focus on the exoteric features of restraint, and not the esoteric or cleaning of the “inside of the cup,” so to speak. When the outside of the glass is cleaned, hiding the uncleanliness within, it becomes characterized by the residue of hypocrisy.

Whether these particular vestiges are anachronistic or timeless, one thing is certain, “Asceticism, real and imagined, is integral to understanding mysticism” (Mcginn). This is echoed in the words of the spiritual giant Thomas Merton, who in New Seeds of Contemplation says, “In general, it can be said that no contemplative life is possible without ascetic self-discipline.” The contemplative life of the mystic is one characterized by interior silence and the experiential unitive knowledge of the Divine.

But what is truly meant by the symbol of the words asceticism or purgation, and why is it so essential? The process of purgation by means of asceticism in the early church was facilitated by the eradication or transformation of the “passions.” This word, like asceticism, has changed over time. This idea of passion comes from the text of the Philokalia, a wealth of wisdom from the early ages of the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

As with many ancient spiritual texts, certain words may not directly translate, while others translate but leave behind a deep well of meaning that fades away as contemporary conceptions of that same word arise in the mind of modern readers. Today, the word passion means something akin to an enthusiastic hobby or labor of love we are meant to chase, perhaps the means by which we chase, in our American “pursuit of happiness”.

However, this is not the conception ancient readers would have had when reading holy text or practicing their faith. In context, “pathos” in Greek signified literally that which happens to a person or thing, an experience of attachment undergone passively. It is an appetite or impulse such as anger, desire, or jealousy, that violently dominates the soul.

Many Greek fathers regard the passions as something intrinsically evil, a “disease” of the soul, thus St John Klimakos affirms that God is not the creator of the passions and that they are “unnatural”, alien to man’s true self (The Ladder of Divine Ascent). Other Greek fathers, however, look on the passions as impulses originally placed in humanity by God, and so fundamentally good, although presently distorted by sin (St Isaiah the Solitary). In either view, passions clearly must be eradicated or corrected, and asceticism was a method for doing so. As such, the method of purifying the intellect, or eye of the heart, by way of ascetic discipline was integral to the conception of sanctification and union with God. 

There is not solely a negative disposition in these ancient texts, but the presence of a positive lure for the treasure that lies beneath the tumultuous waters on the surface. In “On Asceticism and Stillness”, Evagrios the Solitary embraces these views by asking, “Do you desire, then, to embrace this life of solitude, and to seek out the blessings of stillness? If so, abandon the cares of the world, and the principalities and powers that lie beyond them; free yourself from attachment to material things, from domination by passions and desires, so that as a stranger to all this, you may attain true stillness. For only by raising himself above these things can a man achieve the life of stillness.”

Evagrios the Solitary and these bearers of Wisdom are saying that within stillness lies the fullness of joy, the radiance of beauty, and the peace of a burden that is light. The obstacle to this interior stillness is attachments, or passions, and the pathway to success is renunciation. Perhaps, the barrier to our enjoyment is not that which stands in the way of our desire, but our desire itself.

It is here that the ascetics advocate for the practice of dispassion, or apatheia, a term borrowed from the Stoic philosophers signifying a state in which the passions are either uprooted or exercised in accordance with their original purity, and so without committing sin in act or thought. Dispassion is a state of reintegration and spiritual freedom; when translating the term into Latin, John Cassian rendered it “purity of heart” – alluding to Matthew 5:8.

This state may imply impartiality and detachment, but not indifference. For if a dispassionate mind does not suffer on his own account, he suffers for his fellow creatures. Counter to some modern understandings, this state consists, not in ceasing to feel the attacks of desire, but in no longer yielding to them. It is positive, not negative (similar to the positive peace of Shalom) and Evagrios links it closely with the quality of agape love. As such, dispassion is among the gifts of God.

This is summed up eloquently by Saint John of the Cross in The Ascent of Mount Carmel when he says, “For this reason we call detachment the night of the soul, for we are not speaking here of the absence of things – for absence is not detachment, if the desire remains – but of that detachment which consists in suppressing desire and avoiding pleasure. It is this that sets the soul free, even though possessions may still be retained. It is not things of this world that occupy or injure the soul, for they do not enter into it; it is rather the wish and desire for them that abide within it.”

The broad stream of the Orthodox church takes seriously the claims of Incarnational Theology, in that we are bearers of the Imago Dei, but have let that shining image be covered over by our attachments, and once we practice our ascetic kenosis, that Image can once again shine forth in likeness.

From West to East to Far East

Concerning dispassion, this difficult and sometimes cumbersome language of the ancient West comes to mirror the lucidity and piercing clarity of the ancient Far East. In the wisdom tradition of Buddhism, the word dispassion could be rendered into the more accessible, non-attachment. Non-attachment in Buddhism is not a posture of aversion, but one of open-handed acceptance of the flux and flow of temporal manifestations, the removal of tanhā or thirst, and desire for things to stay permanent.

Success in the posture of non-attachment would reveal the posture of equanimity and the ability to remain at peace, regardless of exterior circumstances. In the Dhammapada, “They are wise whose thoughts are steady and minds serene, unaffected by good and bad. They are awake and free from fear.”

Looking to other traditions can give us further context as we begin to see recurring themes pop up again and again. Like a reprisal, we can recognize them from the thematic overture of our own Christian tradition. The flowering and greening of the perennial philosophy in other cultures resounds almost as if in unison, as it says contemporaneously in the Bhagavad Gita, “Those who have attained perfect renunciation are free from any sense of duality; they are unaffected by likes and dislikes and are free from the bondage of self-will.”

The Third Chinese Patriarch says, “The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences” (Hsin-Hsin-Ming, Seng T’San). Or in the Tao Te Ching, “Truth waits for eyes unclouded by longing”, and it is this longing that the ascetic attempts to extinguish by renunciation. Even contemporary teachers such as Thich Nhat Hanh lament, “It is a pity that you spend all your time dealing with the phenomenal world and becoming entangled in it without having any opportunity to go back and touch the deepest dimension of your being.” 

Bridging the Gap

All these sages and teachers attest that we are, as the the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan says, “duped by jouissance” when the mind associates pleasure with sense impression (Milbank). But there is a deeper current beneath the simple sense impressions and rajas of the phenomenal realm. Beneath that outer layer lies “the dignity of our human nature” (Pelagius).

The depth of that nature, which can only be given by grace, is revealed when “just as this cloud of unknowing is above you and between you and your God, it will be necessary for you to put in the same way a cloud of forgetting beneath you, between you and all the creatures that have ever been made” (The Cloud of Unknowing).

For the outer ascesis that is practiced to take the soul through the process of purgation is a means to illumination, and finally, Union. The senses are withdrawn first by act, then by thought, and finally wrought from the will of our small and separate ego self by the continual following after Christ in the kenosis of our self into emptiness. For the process of outer discipline is directly connected to the interior discipline of the passions, and at a deeper level, the banishing of all images from the intellect and cleaning of the mirror that reflects the light of the Godhead.

We must first become still enough to settle the water, so it may faithfully reflect the image of the moon and be made to shine. When we are able to clean the slate the mystics say is truly within us, we are able to obtain that purity of heart with which we see the Divine, for “God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction” (Eckhart). The Via Negativa, Apophatic theology, and even “heretical” Quietism are central to the intuitive core of ascetic practice, and the alignment of theory and praxis was the genius of these ancient writers.

When we deny our self and take up our cross, not by punishment, but by love, we take part in a long lineage of finding that there is resurrection on the other side of death, and that the boundaries of our separate sense of self fall away to reveal an interconnection with all of life, and with God. When we reach this realization, even suffering becomes a doorway to release our attachments and to purify our heart in readiness to see the Divine.

Perhaps we may grasp a tenth of the weight with which Pseudo Dionysius proclaims, “Here, renouncing all that the mind may conceive, wrapped entirely in the intangible and the invisible, he belongs completely to him who is beyond everything. Here, being neither oneself nor someone else, one is supremely united by a completely unknowing inactivity of all knowledge and knows beyond the mind by knowing nothing.” Nevertheless, we cannot simply stop there. We are meant to move continually in the creative unfolding of the kosmos, through transcendence, and like the Bodhisattva, back to immanence – uniting both heaven and earth.

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