Asceticism is not a popular word in our modern world. It is often associated with a sort of pious self hatred and violence against the body. Let’s start this conversation by pointing out that asceticism can become unhealthy and be harmful to the human person. Let’s also acknowledge, however, that this is part of the human condition. We are capable of making anything unhealthy. Marriage is a beautiful thing when it is healthy and a terrible thing when it is not. In much the same way, ascetic practices are beautiful and life giving when done right and can be dangerous when done poorly.
The root of the word ascetic is the Greek word askein which means to train for something. In particular it was used in the context of athletes training to compete in the gymnasium. The early Christian monastics used this term to reflect on the challenges one faces in the spiritual journey. The inner work can often be as hazardous as competing in the arena. We find wild beasts there and we are brought to the limits of our endurance. For this reason, it is wise to have some training, to learn from those who have been in the arena before you, lest you fall victim to the first wild lion you find lurking in the recesses of your heart.
The Celtic monks were definitely spiritual athletes. Like a trained martial artist they pushed themselves to the limits of their spiritual capacity. They were training for holiness and they knew that had to involve a lot of hard work. They lived their lives with the assumption that beliefs and doctrines alone will not bring about the inner transformation which we seek. The knowledge that our inner eyes are shrouded in darkness is helpful because it lets us know what to look for, but the knowledge itself will not dispel the fog over our hearts and minds. We need practices, and sometimes rigorous ones, which do the actual work of clearing the fog away. I talk about Pelagius and his teaching of original sin as a kind of fog which covers our eyes in another article Original Sin or Inter-generational Trauma?
It was a common image in the early church to speak of being a slave to sin. This idea that the fog of the mind actually takes away our freedom is essential. If we are slaves to sin in our minds then we may need to struggle in our escape. If we want to give our will over to God then we must first free our will from the bonds of vice. Ascetic practices are the means of our salvation, they are that by which the bonds of vice are loosed and our souls are made free. This can, of course, also happen by means of grace. But as I noted in another article, The Gift of Hope, we cannot control grace. It will simply be what it will be. But we can become masters of our own wills by drawing upon the infinite depths of love which is the heart of our being. Ascetic practices are the shovels which we use while digging this well in search of the spring hidden beneath the earth.
This is why an emphasis on the goodness, blessedness, and power of the human will is so essential. The act of surrendering our will to God is what happens once the fog has been cleared away. That is when the division between our nature and Christ’s dissolves and our wills become one. But, and this cannot be stressed enough, there is a real danger, especially if one has not done the inner work of ascetic practice, in assuming that we are following God’s will when we are really being led blindly by the whims of our subconscious. The will must understand and control itself before it can truly offer itself to God in submission, otherwise our will is not truly ours to offer. Contemplation without some form of asceticism easily becomes misguided.
With that being said, I do believe it is wise to not follow all the practices of our ancestors without questioning their validity. When I read the early Irish monastic rules I can hardly believe that they actually lived such austere lives as are described. I often wonder to myself, without any actual proof, if these rules were not thought of more like high ideals to strive for than actual practical guides to daily living. I certainly have no desire to practice asceticism in any way that resembles the intensity of what they did. But I also want to learn what was good and healing in their art.
The ancient anamcharas saw spiritual practice and asceticism as a medicinal art. Much in the way that physicians of the body in the middle ages had many practices which might seem barbaric and unwise to us today, the physicians of the soul had ways which we are best to leave behind. I do not want to beat myself with a stick like many of the medieval monks anymore than I want the leeches of the medieval doctors. A modern ascetic practice should be rooted in a modern understanding of the human condition. The early Celtic monks were scientists in their own medieval way and I am sure they would gladly draw from the fields of psychology and psychiatry if they were alive today.
In fact, while the old penitentials describe harsh penances, they also make room for the idea that people are unique and have unique needs. At times they can feel very modern and gentle. Because the goal of asceticism was not punishment but rather medicine, if the treatment wasn’t working they always said to ease up and seek another way. The penitential of Cummean, which is our most complete Celtic penitential, written in the 7th century, follows the teachings of Cassian quite closely. It uses the art of contraries to heal vice and it names the eight vices of the Desert Mothers and Fathers in a very precise way. It’s penances can be harsh but it ends with this final piece of advice,
“This is to be carefully observed in all penance: the length of time anyone remains in his faults, what education he has received, with what passion he is assailed, with what courage he resists, with what intensity of weeping he seems to be afflicted, with what pressure he is driven to sin. For Almighty God, who knows the hearts of all and has made us all different, will not weigh the burden of sins in an equal scale of penance.”
The reason Cummean gives for this can be found in the introduction to the penitential. He says,
“Here begins the prologue on the medicine for the salvation of souls. As we are about to speak of the remedies for wounds according to the rulings of the fathers before us…They determine that the eight principle vices contrary to human salvation shall be healed by the eight remedies that are their contraries.”
Because every person is unique, their circumstances are different, and they have wounds in their souls which are a direct result of the culture they have been raised in, the treatment each person requires needs to be individual to them. This is why an anamchara is needed to help us discern what medicines we require.
David Cole and I have put together a virtual retreat on the subject of New Monasticism. It includes six sessions each with a series of talks and a meditation video featuring beautiful nature scenery and Celtic harp music. There are a few videos available for free preview so that you can get a sense of what it’s all about before signing up. You can click the button below to learn more.