The Celtic tradition offers two very different, but in the end interdependent, reasons to take up ascetic practices. Besides being a gymnasium of the soul as I described in my previous article, Training For Holiness, it is also an act of solidarity with the suffering of the world. This is well expressed in the Homily of Cambrai which is a fragment of Irish theology that survived miraculously in the texts of monks on the continent. It says, “We carry the cross of Christ in two ways, both when we mortify the body through fasting, and when, out of compassion for him, we regard the needs of our neighbour as our own.”
I believe this is the basis of the ascetic life in Christ. This is how we pick up the cross and follow Jesus. By intentionally and prayerfully experiencing suffering our inner eyes are opened to a new reality and we better understand the needs of the world. Just as Jesus took upon himself the suffering of the world, so do we, when picking up our cross, carry the pain of all people. By mystically bonding ourselves to that which needs healing we become the very healing we seek. The homily goes on to talk about how Paul teaches to “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” in Romans 12. In this text Paul is describing an ascetic life in which we offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. We do this because it is our true calling and proper worship.
Paul says that by offering our bodies as a sacrifice like Jesus did we will develop the ability to test and approve what is God’s good and perfect will. By taking up our cross our inner senses become awakened and we can better see what is the will of God to which we should align our own wills. In regards to developing this kind of empathy which leads to solidarity the Cambrai homily comments that what Paul says is, “no mere observation; the apostle said so from the greatness of the love he bore all, that everyone’s illness was an illness to him. An offense to anyone was like a personal offense to the Apostle, and everyone’s weakness was his affliction. It likewise becomes us that we, each and all, suffer with all others in their difficulties, in their poverty, and in their weakness.”
By giving us a controlled environment to train in the mastery of self and by joining us in solidarity with the suffering of the world ascetic practices help us to free our will from the bonds of subconscious impulses and desires. The ascetic is one who has taken control of their own mind and body. In doing so one is able to find full and complete freedom when they freely submit their will in favour of the will of God.
While some of the anamcharas prescribed fasting which was quite harsh, Pelagius had a more balanced approach. For Pelagius moderation was key. One should not go to extremes of self indulgence or self denial. Wisdom is found in the middle between extremes. Because ascetic practices train us to have patience and perseverance in the face of difficulty sometimes they can become susceptible to the whims of our subconscious. As we excavate our inner landscape we may well uncover things which lead us astray. The cultural assumptions we have inherited about our identities can compel us to push it too far or give up too soon. Pelagius recommends a slow and steady pace of asceticism, especially in the beginning. He said to Demetrias while instructing her on how to begin her ascetic life,
“Moderation is best in everything and due sense of proportion is praiseworthy in all circumstances; the body has to be controlled, not broken. Therefore let holiness be sought in moderation, and fastings, which so weaken the body, be practiced in uncomplicated ways and with all humility of mind, lest they inflate the spirit and lest a matter calling for humility create pride instead and vices be born of virtue.”
If you seek this medicine then it is wise to seek the advice of an anamchara first. I believe that it is wise to include the trinity of the human soul in ascetic practice. We should train mind, body, and spirit in the gymnasium of spiritual discipline. In whatever practice you do pick up, try to be mindful of including all aspects of yourself. Each morning set aside some time to spend in reflection and prayer. To root my practice in the teachings of Pelagius I dedicate time in the morning in the manner which he instructed Demetrias. He told her,
“There should be a fixed and appointed number of hours when you are completely free for God and are bound as if by statute to the most intense mental concentration. It is best therefore to assign a morning period to this work, that is, the best part of the day, and up to the third hour to exercise your soul, so to speak, in this gymnasium in which it wrestles spiritually and daily engages in heavenly combat. During these hours of each day pray in a more private part of your house with the door to your bed chamber shut.”
If you would like some guidance in how to spend this time the spiritual gymnasium, check out this article about the Celtic form of spiritual direction which I practice. It is called anamchara (which means soul-friend) and as Brigid of Kildare said, “a person without an anamchara is like a body without a head.”
If you enjoyed this article, please share it on your favourite social media or sign up for our email list to receive weekly reflections. If you want to learn more about Celtic Christianity and Contemplation, check out some of the free videos from our virtual retreat: Sacred Spaces: Contemplation and the Celtic Spirit.